Considering I’ve skirted the heavy stuff the past few days, this week’s Saturday Night Showcase is going to double as a review, and I’m still coughing myself crazy, let’s have a lighter topic.
The Facts Of Life is a spin-off of the NBC sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. I don’t know if Charlotte Rae was being given her own show in the same manner as Robert Guillaume when his character on Soap, Benson DuBois, was given his own starring role but the seeds of Edna Garrett’s new role were already in the parent show. Daughter Kimberly went to the Eastland School (which in Facts Of Life is in Peekskill, New York while the Drummonds lived in New York City) and on occasion her friends would visit her at home. A backdoor pilot once had Edna and Arnold helping Kimberly and some of her friends at their dorm put on a play. This led to the first season of the series, with Mrs. Garrett becoming the dorm mother to the others (Kimberly still lived at home…wonder what the daily commute was like?) However, this would be changed from season 2 onward.
One of the reasons for the change I think is that the original format had too many girls to follow, so in season two they chose three of the girls, added in a new one to the dynamic, and put them alone as punishment for going to a bar while underage. They had to work in the school cafeteria, with Mrs. Garrett moving there to become the school dietician and keep an eye on the girls. Even after the punishment was over the group stayed together because they had bonded, and would remain a group even after school until Charlotte Rae, who played Edna, left the show to focus on theater.
But what about those other girls? While they made cameos in the early seasons they eventually disappeared altogether. What happened to them and did the producers make the right picks for the three that remained from the original format?
YouTuber The Retro Guy pulled together a series of clips explaining what happened to the actresses from the show, the only stand-out from the leftover cast being Molly Ringwald, who played…Molly. I wonder if that was a coincidence? I don’t know, but it did answer a few of my questions. The funny thing is this isn’t what inspired this article. I just stumbled upon it while looking up the season one intro, and he ended up using the same “lost girls” name for the girls left behind.
I first want to look at the three girls that made it to the new format of the show to see why they worked so well.
- Blair Warner: Blair was the snobbish but caring rich girl, daughter of two rich parents who divorced. Mostly we heard about her father, who was in the clothing business. This is usually a good character when not being used to attack the upper class just to attack the upper class. (See most rich characters in the 2020s.) She made a good foil for new character Jo and was still a good person, just one who was spoiled and had to learn to get over herself. This is definitely a good one to bring over.
- Dorothy “Tootie” Ramsey: How could you not love Tootie? Well, she didn’t age well as the writers didn’t always want to see her mature I think. The spunky little roller-skating gossip, the youngest of all the girls, would see the most alteration when she decided to go into acting rather than follow her parents into law. She was absolutely the type of character the incoming 1980s wanted in their sitcom. Unfortunately, while her character did mature somewhat there were too many of those younger instincts, like insisting they all had to keep living together and a few other childish quirks, that kind of limited her in later seasons, when the girls graduated Eastland and the format changed again to where they were all running a cafe, later a store for some reason. (Sadly neither idea led to anything interesting in the form of customers adding to the story. I don’t even remember seeing customers for the store and we only occasionally had clients for “Edna’s Edibles” for catering.)
- Natalie Green (Mindy Cohn): Before becoming my favorite voice for Velma DInkley, Natalie was probably the other character that could hold her own with Blair as a character. Her dream from the start was to be a writer, was adopted, which was addressed really only in season 1 when she had a chance to learn who her real mother was but ultimately opted not to, and as Tootie’s best friend we got to see them evolve in their friendship along with becoming closer friends with the others. She had the least growth personally but she didn’t completely lack it and her character was already pretty solid. She didn’t have far to travel.
- Jo Polnachek (Nancy McKeon): She wasn’t in the first season, instead added in the reformatting of season two and she did shake up the group. Eastland is a boarding school for rich kids but her parents, also divorced (a lot of broken homes on this show) worked hard to make sure she’d have the best education possible. A motorcycle-riding tomboy, Jo came from the streets while the others were at least comfortably well off. It was a great addition to the existing dynamic.
That said, I’m worried that Jo would have been lost in the original formula. So what about the other girls?
- Molly: Yes, I’m starting with the cute redhead. Welcome to the site. Molly Ringwald may have had the biggest career but she make a very strong impact, at least with me. I could see her paired with Natalie given Molly was into photography and their two career goals meshed well, but that would have ruined the Natalie/Tootie dynamic and frankly there wasn’t much to her outside of being a big mouth, which was also a trait of Tootie’s. Basically she was a bit of both characters and I’m not sure she would have worked as one of the carryovers. She doesn’t appear in the video but the editor added this: ” Molly Ringwald later (1986) remembered her sole guest appearance as her “worst job”: “Worst job: Having to go back to Facts of Life as a semi-regular after they kicked me off. It was humiliating.” She never went back after doing one episode as a recurring actress.”
- Nancy: As mentioned in the video, Nancy’s biggest character trait was being boy crazy, especially for her boyfriend Roger, who I don’t remember ever seeing but given how little we see of the S1 only characters I could have forgotten. She had a decent back and forth with Blair but some of the other lost girls had that as well and none of them were as good a foil as Jo turned out to be, a true clash of upper and lower class since, again, all of the girls at least were from well-off families.
- Sue Ann and Cindy: I put them together because while I can tell them apart physically they were so similar as characters that they don’t really stand out as much alone as together. In that reunion clip they seemed to have changed the most from their early depictions (Sue Ann as an executive and Cindy as a model–and I had to rewatch the clip because I got that backwards, further proving my point) and while that might have been interesting to see happen on the show it demonstrates how little the writers were able to make they stand out from each other. There’s even an episode where Mr. Bradley, the headmaster, pits them against each other in hopes of increasing his odds of getting the school a trophy without considering their friendship as the competition grew more unhealthy. Jo is basically the best parts of both, only replacing sports with motorcycles.
Frankly I like all the characters but these four just don’t stand out compared to Natalie, Tootie, and Blair, and that’s on the writer’s side. Had the show continued in the original form I think Jo would be the unnecessary one but these characters’ traits were split between the quartet the show ended up with and it benefited from the smaller cast. Plus, that’s a lot of names to shove into the credits.
And that’s before George came and went, Edna was replaced by Beverly Ann, and new kids near the end Andy and Pippa. In the end I think the right decision was made.