Friday, August 10, 2018

“The Facts of Life”: Closing Time

In 1986, The Facts of Life would suffer its biggest casting change since the post-season one purge. A health scare suffered by Charlotte Rae led her to step away from the show. She would return in guest roles, but Edna Garrett would be replaced by her sister Beverly Ann, played by Cloris Leachman. In a nice tribute, the character was named after Charlotte Rae’s real life sister.

The show, however, was on its last legs. Garrett’s Girls were now women and the show had to come up with increasingly implausible reasons for why these high school friends were still living together. In 1988, Lisa Whelchel and Nancy McKeon decided to call it quits, despite NBC’s desire to keep the show going. Certain that the show couldn’t survive such a huge loss, NBC chose to let the show end. At the time, the networks were infatuated with airing reunion films based on shows from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Many of the films were of dubious quality and some didn’t even bring back the original casts. When The Facts of Life ended, its cast swore that they wouldn’t participate in any similar films.

Except- in 2001 most of the cast did just that. Airing on a different network and produced by The Wonderful World of Disney, the two hour reunion show brought back Mrs. Garrett and three of her girls. Nancy McKeon, who was starring in a Lifetime Network show called The Division at the time, chose not to participate. Her character was represented on the show by Jo’s husband who awkwardly explained her absence by telling the cast that she was busy with her job back home at “the division”. Natalie lamented that she hasn’t seen Jo “in a Lifetime”. Subtle!

Despite Norman Lear’s reluctance to take credit for the show, it became one of his biggest and most profitable successes. The show is fondly remembered by its fans and it still airs in syndication around the world. While the show could be a bit broad and heavy handed at times, its depiction of regular teenage girls with regular teenage problems is what has attracted generations of viewers. Mrs. Garrett’s lessons about the facts of life not only reasonated with her girls but also the world.