SOFT REBOOT: LATTER DAYS Deconstructing THE FACTS OF LIFE, Seasons 7-9

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Oh, man.

Guys, what happened?  One minute, we’re a situation comedy.  The next, we’re a variety show featuring Stacey Q and a young George Clooney.  Cloris Leachman replaces Mrs. Garrett and Natalie is dating some guy named Snake.  Oh, and we’re still living together.  Like, four girls, one room.  Any yet… it’s oddly the most memorable stretch of the show for me.

Let’s take a look back and see what happened.

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It’s 1979,  Dana Plato is still alive, going to Eastland Girl’s School in upstate New York.  Mrs Garrett (Charlotte Rae) is still the Drummond’s housekeeper.  Gary Coleman still doesn’t know what the hell Willis is talking about. None of us do.  Mrs. Garrett…  I don’t quite remember.  Didn’t she feel a calling because Blair was smoking behind an armchair?  Mrs. Garrett leaves the Drummonds to go be a “house mother” for the Eastland girls.  Dana Plato, by the way, is never seen again.  I give you, The Facts of Life.

Wildly successful, but always somewhat out of touch, Facts tackled the facts at a fictional girls school.  There were growing pains, taboo attachments to teachers, a serial rapist, Helen Hunt smoking pot, a flood and KKK scandals.  Pretty much every situation you could throw at a coming of age cast was thrown at The Facts of Life.   It was arguably TV’s first dramedy.  And in the early 2000’s, here’s junior high me filling blank tape after blank tape via Nick at Nite.

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I’m not proud.

I resisted at first.

It was just a phase.

Except it wasn’t.

So fast forward seven seasons, Jo and Blair have long since graduated, Mrs. Garrett’s constantly on vacation and George Clooney lives, like, next door.  And they all.  Still. Live. Together.  For those of you who have no idea what  I’m talking about, Season 7 opens with the “girls” returning after the summer to Peekskill to resume college classes and whatever other attachments brought them back to Mrs. Garrett’s that year.  Except this time, their beloved house and Edna’s Eddibles, the gourmet food shop attached, have barely survived a fire.

I’ll spare you the details.  They rebuild.  They become part owners of novelty shop.  Geroge Clooney is their “handyman,” officially.

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I can understand the network’s decision to move forward, almost as much as I can understand the changes made by the writers.  The series had to, um…”go and show,” that it’s, like, “growin’ now,” and knows, “about the Facts of Life… the Facts of Life.”  But huge gaps in realism (ie: four grown women sharing an attic room together) create a shark jumping effect that feels more like a genre-shattering butterfly effect.

Also, the show routinely relies on vaudevillian humor at this point, especially during the last days of Mrs. Garrett’s era.  Take Blair’s birthday celebration, “The Lady Who Came to Dinner.”  Clever title, by the way… -_-  Louise, the Life of the Party, an entertainer is hired and basically inserts herself as maid and mother figure so that she doesn’t have to go back to her normalized family, who of course doesn’t understand her childish ways.  Now when we meet the family, they’re predictably not normalized at all.  There’s this awkward exchange where a Cone Headsesque couple (Louise’s son refers to his wife as Mother and his Mother as Mother.  The wife and son are both wide eyed and alien seeming) plead with Louise to come home, and the Facts cast treats it a queer but acceptable scenario.

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The plot structure just became less situational and more… more random at this point.  Like, Family Guy random. Which, giving the show’s format, doesn’t translate well.  The attempts at humor feel more like, “awkward aunt and uncle trying to be hip and funny” than “award winning sitcom.”  Don’t get me wrong, the show always felt a little bit cooky.  That was always part of its charm.  But during the final days of Mrs. Garrett’s tenure, Facts descended into an unbelievable level of cooky.

Enter Beverly Ann Stickel, Mrs. Garrett’s recently divorced younger sister, seen above playing the piano from the opening sequence.  While I adored Mrs. Garret (you’re watching the wrong show if you didn’t), writing her out of the show was probably the best thing to do.  Cloris Leachman as Beverly Ann brought a freshness the show was lacking and seemed to ground the remaining two seasons somewhat into semi-realism.  I can watch Leachman’s episodes to this day without rolling my eyes constantly.  Her comedic side was pleasantly irreverent–take “Write or Wrong” where she rearranges the figurines on Andy’s plagiarizing grandmother’s knickknack table for the sake of vengeance–but she also seemed like someone you might know in dayly life.  By this point, few of the remaining cast members gave me that impression.

So, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Australian element.  Aside from a TV movie where the cast goes to Sydney as Eastland ambassadors (Why…?  I think that might be a future post, guys), the final episodes are  crowded by an exchange student named Pippa.  I don’t even want to get into Pippa.  Her debut episode was charming, kind of comical, and she doesn’t really overcrowd the cast, but her mere presence was a sign the writers were straining to find ways to freshen the show.  She also brings the unreality element back.

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During it’s final “arcs” (The Facts of Life didn’t really have arcs), Jo and Blair are complimented by boyfriends met at a community center they briefly work at.  The community center aspect does in fact round out the show.  I would have liked to see the daily lives of the grown up girls pursuing their real lives in the field like this more than I would have preferred to see George Clooney lingering or Pippa helping Andy with the housework (creepy, by the way).  While Cassie and Blair come to an appropriate impasse as a couple, Jo and her significant other get married.  That felt appropriate too.

 

The show wraps up with a couple spin-off attempts.  Natalie finds an apartment in New York City with performance artists and David Spade as a young doctor.  When I first saw this episode, I was in my early twenties, sharing an apartment with girls my age in South Minneapolis, so I could relate to the Bohemian feel of the almost series.  Blair meanwhile buys Eastland.  She turns the establishment into a co-ed school.  Semi-famously (it’s probably a trivia question out there somewhere) Seth Green and Juliet Lewis were housed there.  The show looked like it was going to explore the dark and awkward sides of teenage behavior, and felt surprisingly real-ish.  Perhaps ahead of its time, a la Freaks and Geeks, which was also ahead of its time.  But that’s a separate entry again.

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Anyway, I don’t know what happened to Natalie’s spin-off attempt (it’s not brought up in the reunion movie either), but Blair’s revamped Facts was canned when Lisa Whelchel decided to pursue Evangelical Christianity more closely off camera.  Goodnight, Blair.  Goodnight, Nat.  Goodnight, Facts.

Ultimately, I feel that the final seasons of The Facts of Life represented an awkward puberty or transitional phase from the sitcom format’s strictly situational formula to the more random era of TGIF and the 90’s.

Let’s go watch some episodes on YouTube now.

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