Considering the trappings of its time of origin — Little Darlings Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol in a menstrual three-legged bag race to lose their virginity at summer camp; Jodie Foster licking the mall wounds of promiscuous Foxes; Brooke Shields allowing nothing between her and her Calvins — The Facts of Life was a decidedly more discreet proposition. In 1979, a gaggle of maroon-vested, bobby-socked girls was ditched by their parents at the Eastland boarding school to learn a series of poignant life lessons from a bouffant-haired Edna Garrett. While not exactly the stuff of intellectual zeitgeist or Pulitzers, the show was a midlevel ratings success (it ran for nine seasons), and its omnipresent syndication throughout the '80s guaranteed it a sizable clot in the pop-culture vein — a clot that has, for the last decade at least, been largely ignored.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has finally set the record straight by releasing the show's first two seasons into the bizarre glut of TV boxed sets that currently includes Too Close for Comfort and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But despite such bad (or Three's) company, The Facts of Life surely transcends its undeserved place in the compost of digitized miscellany with both dignity and resonance. Why? Because The Facts of Life is all about you, of course.
For those of us fortunate enough to have spent our single-mom years latchkeyed beneath TV's frisky morality play, the show was more than entertainment — it was a study in archetypes. These were, after all, actresses handpicked for full representation of the American girl-o-meter. For every uptight, gorgeous Blair in the world, there was a funny fat friend Natalie (Mindy Cohn was reportedly selected from a "real school" for her ugliness by none other than Garrett herself, Charlotte Rae), and for every small African-American girl unfortunately named Tootie, there was a pair of roller skates. In fact, the first season's story lines involved a bewildering lineup of no fewer than seven schoolgirls, each chattering her own way through perking breasts, peer pressure and sagging grades. Occasionally, things teetered on the edge of the ridiculous, as in Season One's penultimate episode, "Flash Flood." In the face of the titular deluge, Blair and Tootie decide to make a run for the stables to save Blair's beloved horse; the dam breaks, leaving the squawky duo in imminent water danger. Only the strapping principal, Mr. Bradley, is man enough to cross the raging floods and save them, leading Blair, naturally, to fall in love with him. It's all a gorgeous mess, really, and one that would go on to launch the career of a barely-there Molly Ringwald.
But it was the streamlined Season Two that would truly launch The Facts of Life into its own. Shorn of the extraneous story lines and half its cast, the show welcomed the street-tough Jo (Nancy McKeon, the best lesbian never to be a lesbian) and settled into a tighter ensemble. The story lines matured a bit, too: Shoplifting, race, teenage marriage, nude modeling and Blair's handicapped comedian cousin, Geri, all splashed around in the absurd, and it became abundantly clear that a gay man was standing somewhere behind a scripting pen. "I just had another one of my brilliant ideas!" Blair would coo. OK, Blair was a gay man.
In an odd twist, The Facts of Life has only recently been reclaimed from its excommunicated-stepdaughter status, thanks largely to the very existence of George Clooney. During the recent awards season, many chortled references were heard to George's premier role as the girls' own tool-belted Schneider, who in the show's later years aided in the operations of their entrepreneurial Over Our Heads novelty-retail endeavor — basically a G-rated Spencer Gifts. (Tragically, Garrett's bakery, Edna's Edibles, burned down sometime after teenage relevance set in; the spiky rebirth of TV legend Cloris Leachman as Garrett's replacement traditionally receives significantly less notice). Widening hips and concealing day-glo blazers would follow, as would less charming bouts with the loss of virginity in the girls' awkward, late-blooming 20s.
From the show's ashes would later come a post-menopausal carbon copy known as The Golden Girls, and Natalie, Tootie, Blair and Jo would fall by the wayside, their portrayers entering varying strains of Los Angeles syndicated failure and Tabasco-brandishing child abuse. There was even a Jo-free reunion movie in 2001.
Looking back at these first two seasons, though, there's little sign of that sort of fatigue. Only an attempted pilot launch at the end of Season Two, involving a pre-MacGyver Richard Dean Anderson in a biracial marriage with a black newscaster ("Brian & Sylvia") is truly cringeworthy.
Elsewhere, it's all Tootie rolling into rooms spouting warnings like "You're in trouble — better make that a double" while the world giggles along to the conundrums of institutionalized teenage discovery.
Equipped with few extras, save a couple of maudlin "Where are they now?" featurettes that once again find Kim Fields thinking too highly of herself in soft lighting, the DVD set nonetheless succeeds in providing a colorful glimpse into just how fantastic things used to be, and just how complex (and sometimes corny) the aftermath of the sexual revolution really was. Indeed, they took the good, they took the bad, they took them both, and there they had ... The Facts of Life. Never forget.
The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment