I was eight when the show began and we were living in Missouri. I don’t think I knew about it then. We moved to Taiwan the next year, so I wouldn’t have heard about it for three years. In 1983, when we came back, I was 12, and somehow I knew that it existed and that it was my favorite show. Maybe I saw re-runs in California at my grandparents house. And then we moved to Nevada and got two channels: ABC and CBS, but not NBC.
When we moved to California in 1986, I finally got to see it, the last gasp of first-run episodes, but, more importantly, every weekday at 5 and 5:30, there were reruns on channel 11. Yes. I spent high school catching up on 7 years of The Facts of Life.
Okay, they might not really be seminal American girls for everyone, but for a certain age-span of Gen-X folks, we knew who they were. Even my spouse, 6 years older than I and a cishet male, offhandedly says, “Natalie was my favorite” (that might be one of my favorite things about him). When I was getting to know one of my good guy friends who is 7 years younger than I, we spent a 5 hour road trip talking about The Facts of Life and other 80s television. There is just something about it. Even though it isn’t “great” television, it went deeper than some of the sitcoms of its time. The friendship between Jo and Blair is rich and funny and poignant. Natalie and Tootie are more than just stereotypes. And they tackled difficult topics. Maybe too much so. It can sometimes feel like every episode is a “very special episode,” but they went there. And it’s not overly sexualized, something that disappointed me recently when I tried to watch the first season of Family Ties.
Also, The Facts of Life had George Clooney when he was a baby. He was so cute. (In the same era, he also played an EMT on a sitcom called E/R about an emergency room and starring Elliot Gould. The fact that this isn’t mentioned every time someone mentions ER the drama astounds me.)
As a raised-evangelical kid, there was also the added bonus that Lisa Whelchel was a committed Christian. We could look up to her. I even went to a concert once. Jo was my favorite, but I loved Blair, too. I’ve shared the DVDs of the first few seasons with my daughter. She got bored when Blair and Jo went to college, but she did enjoy them. She does not get my love for Blair. (Though we did watch the Lisa Whelchel Survivor season together. She got that.)
I have been trying to exercise and needed some extra podcasts. It occurred to me that someone might possibly be making a Facts of Life podcast, because that’s what people do in 2020. There are, in fact, two Facts of Life podcasts. So I have been listening to The Facts of Facts with Dominik (an expert) and Britt (a newbie) watching each episode and commenting on them. Britt, watching with a 20-teens eye, is pretty hard on the show. I have also been listening to Let’s Face the Facts where David invites a friend over each week to watch an episode with him and talk about it after. David and his friends tend to love the show and they are gentler about it. I have a preference for the gentler take (because I love this show with all my heart), but I enjoy both of them. While the Facts of Life is family friendly, neither podcast is.
I haven’t mentioned Mrs. Garrett, but she was the glue that held the show together. I was very disturbed when she left. Mrs. G. was the heart of the show. I liked it fine with Chloris Leachman, but it was a different show by then.
There was a moment in the 80s when shows about 4 women were a thing. The young women were The Facts of Life, the middle-aged ones were the Designing Women, and the older ones were, of course, The Golden Girls (who weren’t really very old). I have a theory that somewhere in our American subconscious lies Little Women and every time we gather 4 women together, they are a version of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (with the Beth character varying more than the others). In The Facts of Life it’s almost obvious: Blair/Meg (care about looks and fine things, domestic when it comes down to it), Jo/Jo (duh), Natalie/Beth (she is the sort of odd one out, though Nat is not shy and she doesn’t die), and Tootie/Amy (always sad about being younger and left out, draws attention to herself). In Designing Women it lines up as well: Julia is a Meg, Mary Jo is a Jo (and there’s that name again), Charlene is more Beth than any of the other Beths, and Suzanne is totally Amy. Golden Girls doesn’t work quite so well, but I offer Blanche as Meg, Dorothy as Jo, Rose as Beth, and Sophia as Amy (she has reverted from oldest to youngest).