A Dramatic Refocusing of The Facts of Life Saved the Series
Today, we look at how The Facts of Life‘s dramatic refocusing of the series saved the series from cancellation.
This is “Gonna Make a Change,” a feature where I spotlight shows that underwent major revamps during their runs to avoid cancellation. Note that I mean MAJOR revamps, not, like, M*A*S*H getting more serious as it went on or Cheers becoming more of an ensemble comedy once Shelley Long left.
In the late 1970s, NBC was not doing well at all. In the 1977-78 season, it had just four shows among the Top 30 series on TV, and two of them were just broadcast TV airings of motion pictures (with the occasional TV movie or miniseries mixed in to the overall format of The Big Event and NBC Monday Night at the Movies), one of them was the debut season of a sci-fi series that wouldn’t see a third season (Project U.F.O.) and the fourth was their one remaining superstar, Michael Landon, and his Little House on the Prairie series (Landon was an NBC icon, having a hit series on NBC from 1959 through 1989)!
So when a new sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes, about a rich man, Mr. Drummond (Conrad Bain) taking in Willis (Todd Bridges) and Arnold (Gary Coleman), the two orphaned children of his maid after she passes away, cracked the Top 30 in its first season in the following TV season, NBC was quick to try to capitalize on an actual new hit series, and so before the first season even finished, the show set up a spin-off. Mr. Drummond’s wise-cracking maid, Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae), got a job working at the private girls school that Drummond’s daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato), attended, and so The Facts of Life was born (interestingly enough, despite attending the school, Kimberly never joined the cast of the spinoff).
Original Concept: The initial idea for the series was to show Mrs. Garrett working as a housemother at a boarding school for young women, so the show would have a broad focus, showing the girls at the school, but also the teachers and administrators. This led to the official cast including, on top of Rae as the lead, one actor as a teacher, one actor as an administrator, and SEVEN actors as the girls in the school. Yes, the show STARTED with ten cast members, which is an absurd amount of official cast members to start a sitcom with.
The show didn’t do particularly well in the first season (Luckily, Rae had it written into her contract that she could return to Diff’rent Strokes if The Facts of Life was canceled after its first season).
Revamped Concept: The show decided to take a dramatic refocus, dropping the other adult characters, and eliminating four of the other girls (but retaining them as occasionally guest-starring spots) and add one new actor, Nancy McKeon, as a new girl at the school, Jo, a street-wise kid who clashed with her rich classmates. Mrs. Garrett is made the dietician of the school and, after a run in with the law, as a punishment, Jo and three of the girls (Lisa Whelchel’s Blair, Kim Fields’ Tootie and Mindy Cohn’s Natalie) are all forced to live in a special dorm near Mrs. Garrett’s bedroom, where the girls would be forced to work for her in the kitchen (and, of course, she could now keep an eye on them). It’s a very clever way to explain why suddenly a show about a whole SCHOOL of girls could now star just four girls who weren’t even all the same age (Tootie and Natalie were younger than Jo and Blair).
The show also redid the theme song.
Did it get the show more than one last season?: Yep! It worked like gangbusters, and the show became a hit! It was soon more popular than Diff’rent Strokes, and ran something like 29 seasons on the air (or perhaps it just felt like that?). The show had some other revamps over the years, but while they were certainly not minor changes, I don’t think they rise to the same level as this revamp, since the show remained about Mrs. Garrett and the four girls (when Blair and Jo graduate, Mrs. Garrett opens up a bakery. The girls all work there).
Okay, that’s it for this installment of “Gonna Make a Change,” please send in suggestions for other good revamps to my e-mail address of firstname.lastname@example.org!
1 thought on “A Dramatic Refocusing of The Facts of Life Saved the Series”
The show ran 9 seasons and 201 episodes from 1979-1988. It also had three TV movies in 1982, 1987 and 2001 (the reunion). For the record, that was a longer run their its parent show, DIFF’RENT STROKES, which ran 8 seasons and 189 episodes from 1978-1985, and no TV movies. It definitely had one of the longest runs of any sitcoms from the 1970s and still had a canonical instalment in the 21st century.
It certainly seemed to run longer since it also aired in syndication for a darn long time (including some current cable or free digital stations). I know I had the theme song drilled into my head as a kid and I hardly even watched it. It’s one of those shows which, via endless reruns, never goes away. Like FULL HOUSE and SAVED BY THE BELL. Can’t say I was a fan, but it was hard to escape it entirely.