“The New Girl” (Nov. 19, 1980)

Thirty years ago today one of my all-time favorite shows began its second season with an episode titled “The New Girl.”  The show was The Facts of Life, and the episode introduced the character Jo Polniaczek (played by Nancy McKeon), and was among the more noteworthy in the show’s nine-season run.

The Facts of Life began as a show about a fictional all-girls boarding school in upstate New York, “Eastland Academy.” A spin-off from the NBC hit Different Strokes, the show revolved around the character Edna Garrett in her capacity as a house mother at the school’s dormitory, where a gaggle of girls experienced the trials and tribulations of teenage life.

After the inaugural 1979-80 season, NBC executives and Facts of Life producers agreed to alter the original format of the show, feeling it wasn’t working to its potential.  They eliminated some cast members and changed the basic setting of the action, both moves to free up space and better explore the remaining characters.

The most significant change was the introduction of Joanna Marie Polniaczek, or “Jo”, played by McKeon.  Loosely-based on the Kristy McNichol character in the movie Little Darlings, McKeon’s tough girl was suggested by NBC head Fred Silverman (after he saw McNichol’s performance) and was intended to be a contrast to the affluent and snobbish Blair Warner, played by Lisa Welchel.

The new format of the show, and the gradual improvement of the NBC lineup throughout the decade, meant a new life and new audience for the comedy.  It remained on the air until 1988, following the girls through high school and, eventually, into their own business.

My sister and I watched the first season of “The Facts” and I, many more.  It remained a fixture in our lives through both its run in syndication as well as its consistent place in the NBC Primetime lineup.  Partly out of interest, partly out of familiarity, I watched the show all the way through its final season, up to an including its final episode.  I even watched one of those “Facts of Life” made-for-TV movies that came on later as a reunion venue.

I won’t pretend the show was more important than it was, or even better than it was.  It was fairly popular, but not exceedingly so, remaining a top 30 show for most of its run.  More than anything, it probably benefited from (more than drove) NBC’s strong numbers in the 80s.  It wasn’t an Emmy contender, to be sure, but the actresses who made the show their home weren’t without their merits.  The show should receive some accolades for the topics they addresses in their near-decade run.  The Facts of Life did tackle the major teenage issues of the 80s–drugs and alcohol, abortion, prostitution, date rape, and suicide, to name but a few.  Most of these episodes received some attention in their day and, for young people like me, they left something of a lasting impression.

And maybe the combination of the above it why it remained such a memorable show for me.  I watched these four girls and Mrs. Garret so much, from such a young age, that I felt I knew them.  It was among a set of shows (along with Happy Days and What’s Happening!) that provided me a model of what teenage life was like before I was experiencing it.  That model wasn’t accurate, not by a long shot, but what the hell did I know at 8 years old?  It seemed authentic to my young eyes and, ultimately, entertaining.

I watch a lot of old TV nowadays and The Facts of Life holds up rather well, when you’re watching the early years.  It’s light years better than stuff like Gimme a Break, and (at its best) is probably as good as Night Court or Family Ties (although both of those shows had a lot more quality in their runs).  When it worked, the writers and actresses created moments where the girls were more than just superficial cut-outs of sitcom drivel.  They were human and, at times, even friends.

This episode was, for me, one of those times.  It’s formulaic all over the place, but Nancy McKeon really stands out to me.  It might be nostalgia for the the way she creates one of my favorite TV characters, but I think she had a formidable talent to play Jo as this vulnerable character with a tough exterior (see, formulaic) with these small but purposeful moments of letting you see that vulnerability.  it’s not an easy thing to do, especially while the show itself is undergoing its major format change.

Below is the first part of this episode.  You can watch the rest by visiting the link to YouTube.

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