Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Throwback TV: "The Facts of Life" - Season 1, Episode 1



You take the good
You take the bad
You take them both
And there you have
The Facts of Life . . . Season 1
"Rough Housing"
Original Airdate:  August 24, 1979


The Facts of Life was one of the most successful sitcoms of the 1980s, although you'd never know it based on the first episode and the first season as a whole.  Spoiler alert:  it pretty much sucks.  Of course late 1970s and early 1980s t.v. isn't what we are used to today.  There was no reality t.v., unless you counted those Afterschool Specials in which timely subjects were fictionalized, kind of like Go Ask Alice.  But I digress.

The Facts of Life was conceived by TPTB at NBC in 1979.  Back in the day, NBC was the bargain basement network, with very few highly rated and placed shows.  It was the home of Diff'rent Strokes, which had become a breakout success in 1978. Hoping for lightening to strike twice, the Strokes' writers penned a season one finale in which Edna Garrett, the Drummonds' housekeeper, helps out at Kimberly's private girls' school and is offered a job there as housemother.  The plot for Girls' School, to be renamed Garrett's Girls, was born.  Only three months after the season one finale of Strokes, in August of 1979, the newly (and thankfully) renamed The Facts of Life premiered to a trial run of four episodes.  Interestingly, NBC would keep Charlotte Rae on Diff'rent Strokes as the Drummonds' housekeeper through the second season, which would air simultaneously with the first (abbreviated) season of Facts of Life, in which Mrs. Garrett was at Eastland.  Timelines are overrated.


Blair is doing her nails while Cindy is carrying a pig.
Seems promising.
Episode one begins with a whole lotta exposition.  Mrs. Garrett, fresh from Park Avenue, is the new housemother for Eastland, a private school for girls. The "girls" include snobby Blair, boy crazy Nancy, Kansas native Sue Ann, tomboy Cindy, jokester Natalie, future feminist Molly and rollerskating Tootie.

The girls, plus an extra or two we won't see again, with an assist from Mrs. Garrett, are readying the school for the Harvest Fair.  By "readying," I mean they are hanging one extremely bland and plain banner in their community/living room area.  If the banner is any indication of their skills, Eastland is in trouble.  No worries though because we will never hear of the Harvest Fair after this episode. Blair is preparing to be crowned the Harvest Queen for the third year in a row by buffing her nails while the others are "hard at work," which includes Cindy carrying a pig. Headmaster Mr. Bradley, newly arrived from public school, would like for Blair to have competition and so Nancy helpfully nominates Cindy to run.  Blair, seeing Cindy wearing a jersey, jeans, with her hair crammed into a Yankees baseball cap and with her ever-present baseball mitt on her hand, considers it ridiculous.  Mr. Bradley gets on the girls' good sides but overruling the current curfew of ten p.m. and allows them to stay out until 11:50 (yeah, I know. Weird.)  This creates strife between Mr. Bradley and Miss Mahoney, a teacher who clearly needs to unbutton that top button and let loose.  It's also unintentionally hilarious that Miss Mahoney has difficulty spitting out her age - - - thirty-two.  I know it's the time but Miss Mahoney looks a decade older thanks to her poofy schoolmarm hair and uptight librarian-who-needs-a-shag clothing.  Have no fear -- the promised build up of conflict between Mr. Bradley and Miss Mahoney will never materialize.

The male Drummonds have arrived for the Harvest Ball, bringing well wishes for Mrs. Garrett and, hopefully, the audience from their own show. Mr. Drummond tells Mrs. Garrett that they are struggling without her, complete with a terrible joke about how he thinks he's wearing Arnold's underwear, and wrangling a promise from her that she will return to Park Avenue once Eastland finds a suitable replacement.  Another spoiler alert: that's a promise she won't keep.  Willis and Kimberly have little to do other than stand around and support Arnold being cute. Oh, and in the event you aren't getting what the show is dishing up, Willis insinuates that he thought Cindy was a boy.  To drive the point home even more, when little Arnold says that he doesn't like girls kissing on him, Cindy tells him she doesn't like kissing either and instead likes sports (while punching her baseball mitt).  Thanks for hitting us over the head with that 2x4, show.

Cindy, as captain of the Games Committee, wants the girls to practice their Tug of War, so that they can win.  I'm guessing that this Harvest Fair includes other schools in the area although that's not specifically mentioned (other than the dance will have boys there.)  She tries to accomplish this by pulling Blair off the couch, where she's reading a magazine, and "pawing" (per Blair) her legs into place to practice.  Blair tells her she's "strange."  She also says that the girls are more interested in what happens after Cindy's "silly games" - - the dance and the boys - - something "Super Jock" Cindy wouldn't know about. Cindy responds by threatening to punch Blair.  The essence of ladylike behavior!

Mr. Bradley, gearing up for a season of buffoonery 
Headmaster Mr. Bradley busts into the living room with a lame joke about making house calls, calls the girls "girls," and Molly promptly informs him that they are "women."  Ugh.  His character is also set up by his bumbling and misspeaking about needing Miss Mahoney's assistance with the Harvest Fair (like this is so difficult?) because she's an "old pro."  This exchange leads to the reveal of Miss Mahoney's age (32! Gasp!  Wow! To quote Natalie, "So that's what it looks like!").  Seriously.  You'd think she was eighty (although that hairstyle and dress is doing the actress no favors.)  And a little head's up - - this is the same actress that would appear just over a decade later on Beverly Hills 90210 as Scott Scanlan's mother.

Nancy asks Mr. Bradley if the girls, I mean women, can stay later at the dance this year and asks what the curfew will be.  Miss Mahoney, ever a stick in the mud, reminds Nancy the curfew is ten p.m.  In a weird development, given how reserved Mr. Bradley will be in future episodes, most especially the one on Sex Ed, he believes that since it is Saturday night, the curfew should be extended to eleven.  The stick in the mud doesn't like the idea of changing the rules that have made Eastland an institution for FIFTY-FOUR YEARS and the two engage in a disagreement in front of the girls, something I'm sure is probably not the best idea, until Mr. Bradley has made the curfew now 11:50.  Note to Blair:  this is what you should be calling "strange."

It seems like the show is trying to establish conflict between Mr. Bradley and Miss Mahoney but this promised conflict will go nowhere.

The hair. The shirt.  The 1970s could be cruel.
At least to Miss Mahoney.
Mr. Bradley asks the gaggle of girls "something really important."  Who is going to represent Eastland at the interschool Harvest Queen contest?  Well, duh.  Blair is the self professed reigning queen for two years running.  Molly counts herself out before anyone can count her in, by declaring that no one is going to judge her on her (nonexistent) cleavage.  Blair assumes that Molly speaks for everyone in declining to run against her and I am busy noticing that Cindy, in true "Super Jock" fashion, is sitting on the arm of the couch with her tennis shoes actually on the couch.  Tacky, Cindy!  Didn't your mother teach you any manners?  Where is Mrs. Garrett?   So Sue Ann nominates Cindy to run against Blair since Cindy is "the best athlete in school" per Molly and will keep the contest from being a "total flesh parade."  It's also in the script.  Cindy protests and claims that she doesn't know what to do at a dance and is given "helpful" advice from the others.  By helpful I mean they tell her to be flattered when the nerd asks her to dance, to grab him and, from Blair, to remember that she's a girl and let him lead.  Yep, here comes the 2x4 again.  Nancy has some great new Donna Summer records (love you, 1979!) and wants to teach Cindy some dance steps.  As the girls disperse, Cindy thanks Sue Ann for nominating her, tells her she loves her and gives her a big hug.

Blair, watching this exchange and being, well, Blair, asks Cindy what's wrong with her, given that she's always hugging and touching girls and once again says that Cindy is "strange."  Cindy protests that the hugging doesn't mean anything but Blair suggests that she might start thinking about what she truly means.  Damn, Blair is an asshole.

Mrs. Garrett is in her room with her sewing machine and the unbearable Miss Mahoney, altering a dress for Cindy.  Mrs. Garrett says that Cindy is going to be a "foxy lady" (love you, 1979!), Miss Mahoney says she's not wearing anything (special) to the dance and does not have a date to the dance.  Why would she bring a date to a school dance?  Isn't that weird?  She and Mr. Bradley are chaperones and, again, the show is trying to set up conflict and a potential relationship between the two by having Miss Mahoney protesting all over the place about how horrible Mr. Bradley is, blah, blah, blah.  Who cares?  Clearly not the show or the audience because  (Spoiler Alert!) Miss Mahoney is not long for The Facts of Life world.   Thank goodness this terrible exchange is interrupted with a brief appearance by Arnold dressed as Farmer John and Tootie and Sue Ann informing Mrs. Garrett that Cindy has locked herself in her room and is dropping out of the Harvest Queen contest.  Oh nos!

Cindy is in her room and this is the first shot we get of the girls' dorm rooms.  And . . . what?  It looks like she's in her grandmother's guest room.  Other than two paper mache looking flowers that are on the curtain there is nothing that says two teen girls live in this room (a future episode will tell us that Sue Ann is Cindy's roommate.)  Where are the clothes thrown all over?  (Something else a future episode would tell us, that Sue Ann throws her clothes all around the room.)  Where are the posters of the actors and musicians that all teen girls have?  Even sports posters for Cindy?  Nope.  Nothing other than an Eastland banner and an unidentifiable picture we see in the background when Mrs. Garrett comes in.  No wonder Cindy's depressed.



Mrs. Garrett, preparing for many seasons of talks
Mrs. Garrett to the rescue!   She has a heartwarming chat with Cindy, who reveals she's fourteen and has absolutely zero interest in boys and that maybe Blair is right that Cindy isn't "normal."  (And after this, there is the longest shot and hold on Mrs. Garrett imaginable before we fade out to commercial.) Cindy does have a cute line about making someone a great brother which is surprisingly not offensive.  Since this is 1979 and network t.v., Mrs. Garrett tells Cindy that her interest in boys will eventually kick in when it's time and between that and the cupcake and milk she also proffers, Cindy changes her mind yet again and is back to competing against Blair.

Mr. Bradley makes another appearance, this time looking for Cindy since he too has heard that she's going to drop out of the contest but has not received the update that Cindy is back in.  He tells Mrs. Garrett that he wants to have a "man to man" talk with Cindy.  We get it, show.  Jesus.  This is really inappropriate.  Exit Mr. Bradley and his sports jacket.

Mrs. Garrett compliments Blair in her \(you guessed it) disco-ish 70s dress, ready to take her pretty and conceited self off to collect her Harvest Queen title. She gives Blair a life lesson by suggesting that because she looks sexy and is popular with the boys, she's clearly giving it up.  The point being that appearances aren't always accurate.  Blair does get a cute line in by telling Mrs. Garrett to ask any boy she's dated - - she's not like that, she's a tease!

We don't actually see any part of the Harvest Fair or dance because the budget for this episode must be around the same dollar amount it currently takes to fill up my car. We see Mrs. Garrett, the Drummonds, Blair and Cindy return to the dorm and congregate in the living room area to rehash the events for those of us (viewers) who didn't get to see it, along with a small table of punch and who cares what else.  Cindy did not win the title of Harvest Queen - -shocker! that honor went to Blair, of course - - but she was the Corn Maiden of the Harvest!  Keep living the dream, Cindy. Blair's current amour, who we never see, apparently winked at Cindy which set her boy crazy clock off and running.  Convenient!  Speaking of clocks, the grandfather clock at the bottom of the stairs is apparently stuck at 4:15 throughout this entire episode. At least it's not 4:20?  Although the writers and/or producers smoking a bowl (or twelve) might explain some of what was going on here.

Since Blair apologized to Cindy earlier, resulting in the two making up and Cindy's time clock was activated, all is good for now at Eastland.  Fade out.

Cindy in her Gunne Sax glory . . .
as Harvest Queen runner up
Television pilots can be a sketchy business.  Seems that the majority of them are relatively weak and finding their footing and Facts is no different.  There is exposition going on all over the place and the acting, maybe with the exception of Charlotte Rae and Lisa Whelchel as Blair, is fairly poor.  Everyone is trying hard, much too hard, to be funny.  A laugh track is played throughout, even after dialogue that is absolutely not humorous.  The only upside is that the series is clearly going to be focused on teen girls, at a time when there weren't many shows that were solely about teens.

And while the girls were the focus of the show, along with Mrs. Garrett, there's not necessarily a whole lot of character development.  Not surprising given there is only twenty-two minutes in this episode and there are eight central characters, including Mrs. Garrett, plus the side characters of Mr. Bradley and Miss Mahoney.  

Maybe the most bizarre thing about this episode is the suggestion  that a girl who is a tomboy, who is interested in sports, must be gay.  The show played a game of duck and cover, using "strange" as a euphemism for "gay" or "lesbian," but the continual digs at Cindy's oh-so-not-girly appearance and even the adults (I'm looking at you, Bradley) referring to her as if she's a male are infuriating and disgusting.  It's a disappointment not only that the show made use of such stereotyping but that the "issue" was quickly resolved, as it were, within minutes by having Cindy get the warm fuzzies over Blair's date.

An okay episode but fortunately nothing at all like what would happen with the series beginning in Season Two.  First though, twelve more episodes!

Season One regulars





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