Credit: The Facts of Life: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons

Some ’80s sitcoms are fun to watch today in a how-dumb-could-TV-get, I-used-to-watch-this-with-my-babysitter kind of way. Others turned the norms of the day — laugh tracks, corny lines, Important Life Lessons — into a solidly entertaining (if not life-changing) 22 minutes.

The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons starts out as the former and graduates to the latter — a transformation fascinatingly apparent in this four-DVD set. In fact, watching the 29 episodes play out tells you as much about how TV was made back then as it does about Mrs. Garrett and her Eastland girls. It begins as an awkward Diff’rent Strokes spin-off (we used to tolerate awkwardness so much more, didn’t we?), with Mrs. Garrett (a strong Charlotte Rae) having left her job with Arnold, Willis, and Mr. Drummond to play housemother to too many blondes and a gratingly precocious Molly Ringwald at a boarding school. It then returns for season 2 with some blatant retooling: Mrs. Garrett is (wisely) promoted to school dietitian and (fittingly) 25 pounds thinner. And through some serious plot contortions, she gains charge of only the standouts from season 1 — charmingly vain Blair (Whelchel), funny girl Natalie (Cohn), and sassy gossip Tootie (Fields) — plus the brilliant addition of tough gal Jo (McKeon).

Of course, there’s no comparison between this stuff and the best of today’s TV — our Facts — addled brains would have spontaneously combusted if a time traveler had brought us (on VHS, natch) Lost, 24, or, heck, even a more direct descendant like The O.C. But that’s the point: For better or for worse, they don’t make ’em like they used to. It’s almost like a different medium, the way Facts confronts its characters with major issues (from racial identity to slut reputations) every week?which, of course, always taught them grand truths (racial divisions = bad; slutting = bad) — that never, thank goodness, changed our girls too much. The second season is where Facts found its formula, so it’s packed with some of the series’ most memorable episodes: Jo goes to a cotillion, Blair’s cousin Geri makes her first appearance, Tootie spreads rumors about Mrs. Garrett drinking.

The extras don’t quite measure up, lingering too much on the stunted first season’s sprawling cast (for those of you dying to know where Julie Anne Haddock and Felice Schachter are now). We hope they’re saving some additional, more revealing time with Whelchel, Cohn, and Fields for future seasons’ DVDs. And while we knew not to hold our breath for a McKeon appearance (she dissed the 2001 reunion show, which, come to think of it, would make a nice extra too), we would’ve settled for a good three-way commentary track. But, hey, if there’s one thing we learned from Facts, it’s how to take the good and take the bad.

The Facts of Life: The Complete First and Second Seasons
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