‘Facts of Life’ & ‘Diff’rent Strokes’: It Takes a Lot to Get ’em Right

The third installment of Live in Front of a Studio Audience — hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and 99-year-old sitcom maestro Norman Lear — allowed us to take the good, to take the bad and walk away without having to ask, "Whatchootalkin' about?" We knew. We knew.

Lear & Kimmel, the masterminds (Image via ABC)

The performances kicked off with a surprise live rendition of the theme song to The Facts of Life. Originally sung by Gloria Loring, Lisa Whelchel — who played Blair Warner back in the day— ably warbled the tune looking unchanged from 40 years ago. I'm not a fan of Whelchel's beliefs that gay people should leave homosexuality behind and that it's okay to hot-sauce misbehaving children, but there's no denying the 58-year-old has unlocked the secret to eternal youth. (Dare I wonder aloud about a deal with the devil?)

It would've killed Nancy McKeon to get on a plane? (Image via ABC)

Whelchel brought out her old co-stars Mindy Cohn (Natalie), 55, and Kim Fields (Tootie), 52, for a quick hello before the show got underway.

Hahn in a million (Image via ABC)

Overall, I found this live episode of The Facts of Life more pleasing than any of the others presented so far. The two episodes of All in the Family were well-done, but that show was a true classic, a Broadway-caliber exploration of life's big issues, so for me, there was very little camp to mine and more room for disappointing misses. Good Times and The Jeffersons were more enjoyable, especially The Jeffersons, because while both shows also tackled controversial themes, they were also less lofty, making for-fun impersonations more tolerable.

But The Facts of Life was a show that was far more beloved than it was brilliant, along the same lines as The Brady Bunch, so a modern-day, note-perfect redo always had the potential to be exactly what it was — a not-even-trying-to-be-socially-trenchant hoot.

The set was flawless, as were the hair, makeup and styling. It was truly an uncanny replication, with special kudos for Kathryn Hahn's note-perfect Jo (Nancy McKeon declined to participate) and for the less mimicked and more spiritually dead-on takes on Mrs. Garrett and Natalie by Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman, respectively.

Jennifer Aniston was the star attraction as Blair, and while she was good, I felt she was more Blair-like as she relaxed into the part, especially nailing her in the final scene. She was otherwise missing Blair's Miss Piggy-esque grandiosity. Gabrielle Union as Tootie looked right, but of all of them, her grown-up voice really distracted me. I was also reminded that perhaps Tootie had less to do than the other girls, and maybe not just in the episode that was chosen. (She should send Lear a thank-you note for not requiring her to be on skates.)

The cast was rounded out by surprise guests Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Jon Stewart as a gaggle of boys bidding on charity dinners prepped by the girls, with the winners promised dates. Everyone looks fabulous, but I did find it interesting that with the absurdly good hair being flexed by the women, the guys had such terrible wigs — which suddenly made them look their ages for the first time ever.

I hope Jason's involvement won't preclude an eventual episode of Silver Spoons, even if I know that It's Your Move is off the table.

P.S. I simply can not believe that George Clooney didn't show up. Can. Not. Believe.

P.P.S. Did anyone else think about the fact that Mindy Cohn is the godmother of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's kids?!

Ann Dowd's Mrs. Garrett was Adelaide's lament — and not your Pearl (Image via ABC)

Diff'rent Strokes got off to a much more depressing start, with Todd Bridges, 56, appearing as — wait for it — THE ONLY SURVIVING CAST MEMBER from Diff'rent Strokes. Ouch. Luckily the palate was cleansed by a warm and faithful rendition of the theme by Boyz II Men.

Again, the sets and styling were just out of this world.

Even with facial hair, Kevin Hart was an Emmy-perfect Arnold, capturing the late Gary Coleman's early-years sass and blowing only his final line of the whole night. John Lithgow nimbly recreated Conrad Bain's Mr. Drummond (though he got madder than Mr. D in some places). When a scene called for Hart to be carried by Lithgow — and to sit on his lap — it was unexpectedly sweet.

Why was this so damn touching?! (Image via ABC)

I was less thrilled with Damon Wayans as Willis; he lacked Bridges' dry delivery and seemed unsure. He was outclassed by frequent scene-mate Snoop Dogg as one of Willis's friends — Snoop was off book and off da hook.

Dowd as Mrs. Garrett was, again, right on the money, and give an Emmy to anyone who had to scale the Drummond residence stairs — it's like they lived in Versailles.

The problem with Diff'rent Strokes is the script simply didn't have enough funny lines or enough dated, silly lines, so while still satisfying as a bit of nostalgia, it mostly underscored how feeble the writing was to begin with. We didn't notice this 40+ years ago because seeing black kids as TV stars was a novelty, and Gary Coleman was a generationally exciting personality at a young age — he elevated everything for several seasons until his act grew overly familiar.

Just be grateful they didn't do the Nancy Reagan episode — or the one where Dudley got molested.

While Diff'rent Strokes '21 paled in comparison to The Facts of Life '21, the whole thing was an hour well spent.

Special mention must be made of the ABSOLUTELY OFF-THE-WALL vintage-style parody ads:

Next up ... Maude and The Golden Girls? Or must they all be Lear joints?

2 Responses

  1. Hey Matt – I get what you said about Lisa’s Christian stance on gays, but I just saw this podcast with Mindy, and they seem to address it… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zujo4P_0kg

    What do you think?

  2. Just in case I sent the incorrect link to Mindy’s podcast with Lisa…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zujo4P_0kg&t=467s

Leave a comment