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Why The Facts of Life Mattered

The latest sitcom fodder for Live in Front of a Studio Audience is an indelible '80s TV show.
  • Nancy McKeon, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields and Mindy Cohn in a publicity photo for the original Facts of Life. Photo: NBC
    Nancy McKeon, Charlotte Rae, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields and Mindy Cohn in a publicity photo for the original Facts of Life. Photo: NBC

    With Tuesday night's installment of Live in Front of a Studio Audience — the series of live specials produced (and hosted) by Jimmy Kimmel and Norman Lear that resurrect episodes of a classic sitcoms and recasts them with present-day A-list stars — we're getting a pair of inextricably linked sitcoms from NBC's pre-Must See TV Days: Diff'rent Strokes, which ran from 1978 to 1985 on NBC (followed by a final season on ABC), and The Facts of Life, which aired on NBC from 1979 to 1988

    Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life are very different beasts compared to previous Live in Front of a Studio Audience shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. For one, unlike those earlier three shows, Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life were not created by Lear himself, although they did come from his production company. For another, the Lear-created shows were groundbreaking works of TV comedy, particularly when it came to how the sitcom tracked the sensibilities in a time of change.

    If you squint, you can see a hint of this in Diff'rent Strokes. One of the things that made Lear's shows such landmarks is how each handled issues of race. Diff'rent Strokes was a show about a wealthy white man who adopts a pair of Black kids after their mother dies. It wasn't as good a show as the ones Lear created, and in hindsight it didn't grapple with racial issues nearly enough to justify its uncomfortable premise, but it was part of a continuum of sitcoms that continued to at least touch on race as we moved through the 1980s. It notably launched Gary Coleman as a hugely popular TV star, it managed to pull in high-profile guests like First Lady Nancy Reagan and boxer Muhammad Ali, and helped to popularize the very '80s concept of the very special episode. It's also, sadly, a show streaked with tragedy, emblematic of the cliche of child stars gone wrong, with stars Todd Bridges and Dana Plato both struggling with drug addiction and serving jail sentences later in life. (Plato died of a drug overdose at age 34.) Diff'rent Strokes also spun off its housekeeper, Mrs. Garrett (played by Charlotte Rea) into a sitcom of her own, The Facts of Life.

    In the context of TV history, there's nothing very remarkable about The Facts of Life, other than it cast George Clooney in one of his earliest screen roles — as handyman-turned-roadie George Burnett — in two of the show's later seasons. (He was dropped at the end of Season 8.) It was a long-running show with an earworm of a theme song that didn't particularly influence the shows that came after it, didn't win any Emmys, and doesn't show up in many retrospectives about the medium of television. When Lisa Welchel, who played Blair, showed up on the Philippines season of Survivor, she wasn't recognized by anyone but the two oldest contestants. That's where the show stands, culturally.

    That said, The Facts of Life IS remembered by many, and when Live in Front of a Studio Audience brings Ann Dowd out as Mrs. Garrett, along with Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Gabrielle Union and Allison Tolman as the girls in her charge, it's going to be a rush of nostalgia for anybody who watched television in the '80s. Because what makes The Facts of Life the perfect show to be graced with the Kimmel's starry makeover treatment is that it was so thoroughly unremarkable. The Facts of Life is the classic '80s sitcom because it represents the kinds of high-concept, low-stakes, warm vibes, and easy laughs that characterized the bulk of shows of that era: the Who's the Bosses, The Growing Painses, the Perfect Strangerses, and so many others.

    It was fun to revisit the groundbreaking worlds of All in the Family and Good Times under Jimmy Kimmel's watchful eye these last few years. With The Facts of Life, though, it feels like we're going to get to experience the true nature of '80s sitcoms, in all their dated glory. In many ways, we'll be taking the good, taking the bad, and learning that The Facts of Life really was all about us... and all the mindless television we marinated in throughout the '80s.

    Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Diff'rent Strokes and The Facts of Life airs live on ABC Tuesday December 7th at 8:00 PM ET

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    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Live in Front of a Studio Audience, ABC, Allison Tolman, Ann Dowd, Gabrielle Union, Jennifer Aniston, Jimmy Kimmel, Kathryn Hahn, Norman Lear