Saturday, January 20, 2007

Grudge Matches I'd Like To See: Diff'rent Strokes vs. Facts of LIfe (+ stray FoL thoughts)

The four family members from Diff'rent Strokes, Mr. Drummond, Arnold, Willis, Kimberly, vs. the four girls from their spinoff The Facts of Life, Blair, Jo, Natalie, Tootie. Mrs. Garrett cannot participate because she was on both shows, so she'll be the referee. Who wins this battle of the non-prestigious Norman Lear productions?

I'm going to go with the Facts of Life girls. Most of the Drummonds are essentially useless in a fight, which will allow Jo and Blair -- both of whom have ample reserves of RAGE (tm) -- to unleash destruction on other people rather than each other.


I recently watched the third season of The Facts of Life, never mind why. Okay, here's why: I loved it as a child and wanted to see if I remembered any of it. I was actually kind of surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Is it heretical to say that it holds up quite a bit better than most of the better-known shows from Norman Lear's company? Less yelling and screaming, somewhat better scripts, and a director (the Rhoda and Phyllis-trained Asaad Kelada) who knows that you do not in fact have to shoot the entire show in extreme close-ups.

Not that I think The Facts of Life is a masterpiece or anything. It's cheesy and all. And judging from a fifth-season episode I saw on a local channel, it burned out pretty quickly. (We won't even get into the whole George Clooney or Mackenzie Astin thing -- the very act of adding a male cast member was kind of a betrayal anyway). Still, it's pretty solid entertainment, which in today's sitcom-starved environment is good enough. Anyway, as with all situation comedies, the test is not whether it's too preachy (it is) or whether it has some idiotic plots (Tootie meets Jermaine Jackson?). It's all about characters. Most situation comedies today struggle to come up with one distinctive character; FoL had five. (And speaking of characters, I like -- and totally forgot -- that after several regulars from the first season were dropped in the Big Implausible Re-Tool, they would still have those girls on in guest appearances.) Most situation comedies today can't come up with a really funny relationship that can provide the basis for the comedy; FoL could always go back to Blair vs. Jo when they needed a laugh. Simple, basic things, but as with any bad sitcom with good writing, the simple, basic things aren't always easy to come by.

(The preceding clip was from an episode written by Peter Noah, who later produced The West Wing for a while.)

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