Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"The facts of life are all about you, you-oo-oo"

Ok, so, bad news, Mary Tyler Moore is actually kind of a boring show. I think I just can't get into adult TV. I liked The Wire, and I prefer movies to be be adult (but not, you know, adult), but TV is itself something I stopped being that excited about after about the age of 16, and perhaps my sensibilities are still attuned to that age. I'm with Phoebe on this:
But in general, my favorite shows are the ones set in real American high schools, ones with universally-recognized popular kids (who are also the rich kids, as well as the ones wearing visibly expensive clothing, because any other way would require too much explanation), sports teams, parking lots, and house parties held in actual, detached houses, in parts of the country where 16-year-olds actually have trouble obtaining liquor. Thanks to glorious American cultural hegemony, young people the world over grow up with a shared experience of suburban American high school. The lockers, the cheerleaders, the prom, we've all been there, even if we haven't. Perhaps for this reason, the more interesting the high school show ("Freaks and Geeks" and "Strangers With Candy" come to mind), the more generic and clich├ęd the school environment.
I think this is right, though it's not specifically suburbia that's so appealing, but the generic--and therefore primarily social--experience of American school. Urban schools can work, and I think more often than not, representations of suburbs bleed into small towns in terms of their self-containment and isolation more than they would in reality (for example, no one leaves Sunnydale in Buffy and goes to LA, although it should be nearby, and when Buffy runs away to LA, it's so distant that no one goes after her).

So, in my search for vintage sitcom depictions of school life, I found The Facts of Life. Actually, I've seen it before at some point, but never in an entire-season-in-one-sitting kind of way (probably a good thing). And it is great! But also awful! Most importantly, it is totally a product of the Judy Blume phenomenon.

What is weird and interesting about the Facts of Life (and Judy Blume, and the entire genre of young adult entertainment that starts in the late '60s) is the depiction of 'growing up' as a series of 'issues' to be confronted. There is the first period, the loss of virginity, homosexuality, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, racism, divorce, child abuse, teen pregnancy, rape, crime, gangs, and so on and on. These are portrayed as the pathologies of the "real world" that all children must come to know as a pre-requisite for passage into adulthood. In reality, most of these "issues" are restricted entirely to childhood (for example, teen pregnancy: pretty normal once you're no longer a teenager), and a more nuanced analysis would examine the issue-ization of universal pubertal events like menstruation and sexual awakening separately from actual pathologies like date rape.

The impulse for constructing adolescence this way comes, I think, from an idea that Judy Blume helped to create--that the experience of pathology is the authentic and "real" content of coming of age, and all the more so because adults are hesitant to discuss it. Parental prudery--the unwillingness to be "frank" about sex and violence, primarily--condemns children to isolation, ignorance, and shame. In swoops the YA author (with the school librarian in tow) to rescue the benighted child from its misguided parents, and to help it, as Judy Blume often said in interviews, feel less alone and find role models with whom to identify. (This view is extremely weird when applied to an issue like menstruation, which is neither a pathology nor a scourge of modernity, and there is no obvious reason it needs to be an "issue" or a major social turning point in a girl's life, but recall that Are You There God? It's Me Margaret was Judy Blume's first great success and probably the first such YA book.)

Compare this view of coming of age to the view promulgated by girls' books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. They may have been insipid in their own ways (which is part of what made the Judy Blume variation so popular), but they took growing up to be a process of character formation rather than encounter with external phenomena. The major development in Anne of Green Gables is the project of civilizing the impetuous, irreligious, proud, and vain Anne into what we might consider virtue, or a kind of Puritan sensibility about what makes virtue. Jo March has a very similar character arc. In the end, both characters are asked to sacrifice--Anne gives up her secondary education to stay home with her aunt, and Jo cuts off her hair to help her mother visit her father (which, objectively, does sound kind of absurd)--but the story is about what they do to become adults, not what happens to them. The YA configuration features characters who must learn to cope with the cruel and arbitrary pathologies of "reality" and to accept other people's drama.

The Facts of Life is like the Cliff's Notes of Judy Blume, or maybe just a glorified series of after-school specials connected only by the convenience of a constant cast. Once you account for the roughly 25 percent of the episodes that are about the girl's literature standbys--love, friendship, and gossip--what you have left is episode after episode of issue confrontation. I thought Seventh Heaven was egregious in this regard, but at least it had 40 minutes to develop each crisis. In The Facts of Life, a character lapses into and out of alcoholism in about 20 minutes, and the span of two TV-time days. With this, we are to conclude that the issue has been faced and conquered, and the girls have reached an important development milestone.

Which is all too bad, because the show has such potential. The actors all look like normal human beings who are the age of their characters and re-wear their clothes. (Phoebe disagrees, but I think the fat girl is a surprisingly likable and natural character. Especially for a show that clearly wants to make an issue out of everything, it has done well by not making an issue out of Natalie's weight, or at least not in the episodes I've seen.) Edna Garrett is awesome. The school is recognizable enough to be all-American, and exotic enough (boarding school!) to be compelling (if only they would ever leave its dining room). It could've been a great show if it weren't so intent on teaching lessons about so-called real life. Not that this has stopped me from watching the available season on Hulu and all the minisodes, too.

Why? Because the pathology stuff (later variants have been named "bleak lit" but Facts of Life is too optimistic and the bleakness too external to the main characters to qualify, though it's clearly on the same road) is incredibly appealing to adolescent girls. Weirdly, both the Victorian/Edwardian Little Women and Anne of Green Gables virtue stories and the Judy Blume and Melvin Burgess issue confrontation work on girls, and contemporary girls, at least those who read, have almost all read both. Why is that? Both are, notably, kinds of morality tales. Children discriminate less between high and low literature, but I'm not sure that explains the appeal of what appear to me to be two radically different approaches to the question of how to become an adult.

Plus, it has a great theme song. (Not the first season version.)


Anonymous said...


I think what makes such shows so intriguing is that they present 16-year-olds with the sensitivity and sensibilities of people much older--"old souls" if you will. The reason is obvious: Unlike real life, the students in such shows are actually in their mid-to-late 20s or--in the case of BH90210's Gabrielle Carteris--mid-to-late 30s. The maturity of the actors shines through.

The exception to the rule is the Claire Danes vehicle MY SO CALLED LIFE. The most superficial kid in that show is more substantial than just about every student I have ever encountered (present addressee excepted). The fact that the actors were actually kids makes the series perhaps the best of the genre.

I know that you don't like sports, but the best current show of this ilk is FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS.

lance said...

I agree that what makes US high schools more intense is the suburban isolation. I went to high school in the US and then Canada (actually went to school with many of the kids from Degrassi High), and the suburban US experience is much more intense. I think it's also because college isn't as big a deal in other countries, and therefore high school isn't as competitive. It's not as hard to get into college, prestige is not as important, and it's more of a technical training. Same is true in most of Europe, I think. Nobody puts a "Sciences Po" sticker on the back of their car.

jason said...

You miss the point about how Facts of life contructs adolescence--the rapid solving of many different problems was an eighties' television phenomenon. Most sitcoms, and even dramas, did the same thing--they had the episodes that dealt with drugs, rape, alcoholism, shoplifting, smoking, etc. (usually minor characters were the involved parties). It may indeed be what you claim or it may just be poor writing--we'll cover this issue to get attention this week, or to add some superficial importance to the pulp viewed.

Alpheus said...

As someone of a certain age, I feel the urge to point out, for no particular reason, that FOL was a spinoff of Diff'rent Strokes. I feel its parentage should be acknowledged. :-)

Also, at some point there was a FOL made-for-TV movie. I think they go to Paris.

Anonymous said...

Kudos to Alpheus for the D-Strokes reference. What an odd era that was. Simultaneously, two separate sitcoms (DS and Webster) featured the adoption of impoverished, hypothyroidistic African-American children by wealthy white families. I would have loved to be in those pitch meetings.

But, I digress. Sorry, MSI.

Dana said...

There's a FOL reunion episode too. It is weird to see them as adults.

Andrew Stevens said...

Mgc: Diff'rent Strokes had been running for five years before Webster. So not so simultaneous - one was clearly a rip-off of the other.

A remarkable show, Diff'rent Strokes. There was a celebrated guest appearance by Nancy Reagan in a "very special" anti-drug episode and then the three child stars would all nobly sacrifice their own lives in order to hammer that message home.

Also, Janet Jackson appeared as Willis's girlfriend for a few years, almost as notable as a young George Clooney being a Facts of Life cast member for a year.

hardlyb said...

I've never seen the show, but I had the impression that over time all of the girls got to be rather chubby. That is, there was a fat girl at one point, but toward the end of the show they all looked the same puffy size. Is that correct?

My brother is also an aficionado of bad TV, and has actually seen many episodes of Stargate and "The A-Team", both of which he thinks are very funny. Watching this stuff makes me very depressed, imagining people collaborating to "create" such things...

Anonymous said...


I stand corrected. The two ran contemporaneously, but Webster began well after as you note. By the way, Janet "you can call me Miss Jackson if you're nasty" was also on Good Times in the late '70s.

Jacob T. Levy said...

It's *very* strange to observe the conversations that ensue when the Very Special Episodes of my youth are uncovered as archaeological finds.

Please allow me to introduce you to the Very Special Episode before it went to prime time, right in the heart of the Judy Blume 70s: The After-School Special.

Miss Self-Important said...

MGC: No, but in FOL, the actors are as old as the characters as well.

Jason: Right, it's lame, but why this instead of other kinds of possible TV lameness? You can write almost anything badly, but why write issues?

Alpheus: Both true. There aren't any full episodes of Diff'rent Strokes on Hulu though.

Dana: By about 1987 or so, when the show was winding down, they were already pretty much adults (I think Blair was in law school?). It's like the 7th and 8th books of the Anne of Green Gables series--exponentially worse than the beginning.

Hardlyb: I've only seen up to about the fourth season, but only the fat girl is fat. Everyone else is pretty average-sized.

Jacob Levy: Yeah, the adolescent sitcom as after school special w/ consistent cast is one explanation I suggested for this. It's hard to tell the Very Special Episodes from the non-special episodes in FOL--they're almost all about issues. Some of them are two-parters--maybe that's the give-away. But even where it's only dealing w/ mundane stuff like school rivalries, the entire outlook and structure of the show is totally different from say The Adventures of Pete and Pete, which revolves around the idea that childhood is a time of skewed perception and insulated self-absorption, rather than a time to confront the badness of the world at large.

Andrew Stevens said...

Hardlyb: your memory is definitely of the right show. Blair was hired to be the "pretty girl," but she was definitely packing on the pounds by the end of the run. Tootie had also put on quite a bit of weight. (Jo got a bit bigger, but didn't put on as much weight as the others and she was also larger built to begin with so she carried the weight better.) Interestingly, Natalie got thinner (and also got breast reduction surgery). According to the actress, the producers even asked her to put on a little weight for the other girls' sake, but she flatly refused. The actresses blame the producers for making too many doughnuts and the like available on set. By the time the producers got rid of the doughnuts and substituted celery and carrots instead, the damage had been done. See this interview for details. None of them got as big as Natalie was at the beginning though.

Mgc: thanks for the info. I had no idea that Miss Jackson was on Good Times. (Though I remember her on Fame.) Good Times is slightly before my time, while Facts of Life, Diff'rent Strokes, and Webster are all well within my memory. (I distinctly remember sitting down and watching the premiere of Webster and the adults were commenting on what a rip-off it was of Diff'rent Strokes.) By the way, apparently Gary Coleman played a small part on Good Times before he was cast in Diff'rent Strokes.

The after-school specials were simply awful, though.