"You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both -and there you have The Facts of Life"
Review by Mike Spadoni (2004)
It was never a ratings blockbuster, nor was it a show critics loved. But The Facts of Life was one of the best-remembered and most loved US sitcoms of the era.
Part of the reason was that at a time when comedies seldom tackled issues important to teenage girls, Facts dealt with everything from alcohol use to sex -and did so years before teen-oriented dramas such as Beverly Hills 90210 and Dawson's Creek. Another reason was the relationship between the always wise Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), and the four girls who were at the centre for much of the show's long run (Lisa Whelchel, Mindy Cohn, Kim Fields and Nancy McKeon).
A spin-off of Diff'rent Strokes, Facts starred Garrett (the Drummond family maid) as the housemother of a group of girls at the exclusive Eastland School near Peekskill, New York. The show had a trial run in the summer of 1979, then came back as a midseason replacement in 1980 with little success in the ratings.
In the fall of 1980, four of the seven original girls (Felice Schachter, Molly Ringwald, Julie Piekarski and Julie Anne Haddock) were let go, and Garrett became the school's nutritionist. Only three of the original girls stayed: snobby and rich Blair Warner (Whelchel); plump and wisecracking Natalie Green (Cohn) and young roller-skating gossip Tootie Ramsey (Fields). To add some spice to the cast, a new character was introduced: Jo Polinaczek, a tough-talking girl from the Bronx with the required heart of gold (McKeon). New writers were brought in to generate stories that young women and girls could relate to.
Aided by a better time slot (Wednesday nights at 9:30 after Strokes), Facts of Life reached the top 30 and stayed there for the next several years. In the fall of 1983, Garrett opened her own food store in Peekskill. The four girls moved in with Garrett and helped her run the store. 1985 saw more changes. "Edna's Edibles" was destroyed in a fire, so it was rebuilt as a souvenir shop called "Over Our Heads." Two new characters were added this season: Sean MacKenzie Astin as a delivery boy, and George Clooney as hunky carpenter George Burnett. Clooney left the series after one season. (ER stardom for Clooney was just eight years away). In the fall of 1986, Rae decided to leave The Facts of Life. Her character got married and moved away, so her befuddled sister Beverly Ann (played by veteran actress Cloris Leachman) became the new mother figure to the girls, and stepmom to Astin's character.
The show was cancelled in 1988 because of declining ratings. But each of the girls became young women and went out into the world. Natalie became a writer in New York; Tootie became engaged to football player Jeff Williams and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London; and Jo headed toward a business career as she married musician Rick Bonner. Blair underwent the biggest change of all. In the final two episodes, she saw her beloved Eastland School fall into bankruptcy, so she bought it and turned it into a co-ed institution. It was designed to be a spinoff series, but NBC turned it down.
In an unusual move for a US sitcom, NBC aired two made-for-TV movies with the cast: Facts of Life Goes To Paris (1982), and Facts of Life Down Under (1987). One of the most interesting semi-regulars on the show was Blair's cousin Geri Warner, a young woman with cerebral palsy (played by real-life handicapped stand-up comic Geri Jewell). "Cousin Geri" was one of the first roles for a disabled character on US series television. But writers found it hard to create situations for Jewell, and her last appearance on Facts was in 1984.
The Facts of Life may not have been groundbreaking comedy, but it was pretty good entertainment with some life lessons thrown in. That's probably why the show still has a following in reruns around the world.
Published on November 16th, 2023. Written by Michael Spadoni for Television Heaven.