- Remembering "The Facts of Life" featurette
- After facts featurette
- Closed Captioned
The Facts of Life grew from a cult favorite to a pop-culture phenomenon across seven seasons, and made pop-culture history the first prime-time network show aimed at younger female audiences to enjoy that kind of sustained success. As this 4-disc set from Sony Pictures reminds us, however, it started life fairly modestly, as a proposed spin-off of an already-successful series (Different Strokes), to give co-star Charlotte Rae her own series. Four of the young performers with whom she was working -- Lisa Whelchel, Mindy Cohn, Kim Fields and, later, Nancy McKeon -- quickly found followings of their own in the series' second seasion, and became stars in their own right, as the scripts advanced in leaps-and-bounds. This four-disc set takes viewers back to the show's beginnings, when there were a lot more than five principal characters -- indeed, as we are reminded both in the episodes themselves and in interviews with the producers and cast, in the first season in 1979, this was a much more crowded series. Felice Schachter was regarded as one of the principal players and the likeliest breakout performer in the role of Nancy, and Julie Piekarski, Julie Anne Haddock and a young Molly Ringwald were principal supporting players, on top of adult actors such as John Lawlor and Jenny O'Hara. Once the makers and the network saw that this series could succeed, they decided to fine-tune it, in terms of production and budget, and eliminate as much as they could without harming what did appeal to audiences -- and there went more than half the cast and, eventually, a big chunk of the setting.
Thus, in a way, this is potentially the most interesting volume in the DVD release of the series, as it recalls the abandoned original concept and cast. Luckily, the producers and writers realized early on that they had tapped in to the younger facets of what was then called the "women's movement" of the 1970's, and quietly pushed that side of the series; and the performers who were left after the first season jumped right on it, in kind. Charlotte Rae doesn't participate, but the other actresses from the first season are interviewed at length for the featurette "Remembering The Facts Of Life." All are pleased at having been a part of what came from the show, even if, in some cases, their contribution wasn't part of the version that lasted. And all seem pleased to be able to say that they were part of the first successful network series to focus on the emotional lives of girls and young women, and the issues that they faced in life -- one also gets the feeling that Schachter's character might have made the cut for the second season if only her role had been better written; but she seemed the most conventional and traditional-minded female on the series, and was the most focused on boys. Indeed, as this reviewer realized for the first time while watching this set, the male influence on story-lines -- especially after they all-but-eliminated the character of the school's principal following the first season -- was usually out of the center of stories, if not non-existent. Apart from the factual revelations, on a purely emotional level it's also reassuring watching the documentary to see how well all of the cast members who are represented seem to have done with their lives -- most of all Mindy Cohn, who never intended to be an actress and, indeed, was literally discovered by the producers while they were gathering footage and material at a real girls school. The others, especially those who were dropped from the cast after the first season (essentially a budgetary decision by the network and the production company), are very philosphical about the effect (or non-effect) of the series on their lives; and, as is all-too-typical of most entertainment -- as a statement of quality and seriousness -- they are far more intelligent than the characters they played. (It's also a strikingly ironic contrast to the unhappy post-series lives of the younger cast members of the series that spawned The Facts of Life, Different Strokes).
As to the programs, they are intact and uncut, and they do look and sound beautiful. The full-screen (1.33-to-1) images have rich color and very full sound. Even the title-song, which always annoyed this reviewer no end, sounds interesting heard in digital clarity. The chaptering mirrors the commercial and credit breaks for the original episodes, and the special features are accessible through an easy-to-use multi-layered menu. And the decision to combine the first two seasons makes perfect sense, as the first season -- consisting of only 13 shows -- was too short to stand on its own and was so different in casting and content from the series that followed. And doing the two together, in tandem with the documentaries, shows us exactly how the series got from there to here.
Cast & Crew
Charlotte Rae - Edna Garrett
Lisa Whelchel - Blair Warner
Kim Fields - Dorothy `Tootie' Ramsey
Mindy Cohn - Natalie Green
Nancy McKeon - Jo Polniaczek