Monday, August 6, 2018

“The Facts of Life”: Origins

The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were not a good time for NBC. Few of its shows seemed to become true hits with viewers. While ABC’s comedies and CBS’ dramas were hard to beat in the ratings, NBC’s schedule resembled a wasteland. Going into the 1978 season, its only real hit was Little House on the Prairie, and it was only a hit in comparison to everything else on NBC. Into this void went Diff’rent Strokes, a sitcom about a wealthy businessman who adopted his maid’s sons after her death and raised them as his own. Led by the seemingly precocious Gary Coleman as the smart talking Arnold, the show took the country by storm, becoming a hit by any measure.

The show was one of the first projects produced by the legendary Norman Lear for NBC. His other major successes had all aired on CBS; with his mega hit All in the Family becoming a fertile spawning ground for other hits like Maude and The Jeffersons. NBC was hoping that the same could hold true for Diff’rent Strokes, immediately ordering a spinoff before the first season had concluded. Mr. Lear was not fully onboard with the idea. CBS has always allowed him to try more organic spinoffs of well known characters and only after the original show had enough time to settle in. How could NBC ensure that Diff’rent Strokes wasn’t damaged by a departing character? Who would even get spunoff into a new show?

It was decided that the one character who could probably leave without causing too many problems was Mrs. Garrett- Charlotte Rae. How could she be spunoff? NBC had decided that Diff’rent Strokes was very male-centric- maybe a show with mostly girls could be complementary to it. Thus the network began plans to tryout Mrs. Garrett as a housemother to a group of boarding school girls. She is introduced to the school by Kimberly Drummond, who apparently attended the school while still living with her father and brothers. In the final episode of the season, The Girls School aired, which aimed to be a backdoor pilot- it introduced the spinoff’s premise as a regular episode of Diff’rent Strokes.

The episode aired with Mrs. Garrett getting offered the job of housemother, which she turns down. This would allow her to return to Diff’rent Strokes if NBC didn’t pickup the show, which it was referring to as Garrett’s Girls. To Norman Lear’s chagrin, Garrett’s Girls was picked up, with Charlotte Rae becoming an active participant in its development. NBC was hoping it had another hit on its hands.