The Facts of Life’ Succeeded Where a Show Just Like It Failed

The Facts of Life launched itself into American living rooms in the late 1970s.

By the time it went off the air in the late 1980s, the TV show had become one of NBC’s most successful sitcoms. Over the course of its nine-season run and three television specials — two TV films and a two-hour movie reunion that aired in 2001 on ABC — the Facts of Life picked up multiple Emmy Award nominations and was also awarded the “Pop Culture Icon” award from TV Land.

However, the sitcom’s success wasn’t always a guaranteed thing. In fact, its first season debuted to terrible ratings and a similar show just like The Facts of Life failed dramatically. 

The first season of ‘The Facts of Life’ had terrible audience ratings

Tom Fitzsimmons as Alex Garrett, Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Edna Ann Garrett
Tom Fitzsimmons as Alex Garrett, Charlotte Rae as Mrs. Edna Ann Garrett | Ron Tom/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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As The Facts of Life rolled out in the summer of 1979, it was consistently ranked almost dead-last in that year’s Nielsen ratings. The poor reception caused NBC to do a dramatic overhaul of the sitcom.

“When the show failed to crack the top 30 in the first season all the writers were fired,” explains IMDB. Almost the entire cast was also let go, with only four of the original main stars — Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett, Lisa Whelchel as Blair Warner, Kim Fields as Tootie Ramsey, and Mindy Cohn as Natalie Green — making it to the second season.

The retooled and revamped show follows Rae’s Garrett as she oversees an all-girls school’s dorm. Most of the storylines involve the escapades of the school’s residents while Garrett tries to reign in the chaos. “While always a comedy at heart, the series wasn’t afraid to get serious, featuring episodes that tackled racism, abortion, adoption, drug abuse, alcoholism, rape, and suicide at various points,” reports Entertainment Weekly.

The second season of The Facts of Life performed much better, and the sitcom avoided being canceled by NBC. But a similar show, released in the same time period, didn’t fare so well.

‘Dorothy’ was a failed sitcom with a similar storyline

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In NBC’s The Facts of Life, Garrett was the former housekeeper of a wealthy household before transitioning to her job at a girl’s home.

CBS had a nearly identical idea. Their sitcom, entitled Dorothy, came out in the same year as The Facts of Life. In it, “former Broadway star Dorothy Banks…teaches at an all-girl school,” reports IMDB. Just like in The Facts of Life, the school in Dorothy is quite exclusive and filled with girls from wealthy families. 

The similarities even extended off-screen. “Both Rae and Dorothy Loudon [the star of Dorothy] were Broadway veterans,” reports The Classic TV History Blog. “They knew each other [and] had vied for some of the same roles.”

However, similar to The Facts of Life, the first few episodes of Dorothy was not well received by audiences. After only four episodes, the show was canceled. 

Spinoffs of ‘The Facts of Life’ also failed

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Although The Facts of Life itself grew to be popular with fans, it wasn’t just Dorothy that struggled to find a foothold with audiences. Spinoffs of The Facts of Life also didn’t perform well.

“The show tried (and failed) to launch six of its own spinoffs,” reports Mental Floss

“I think [the producers] kind of knew it was nearing its end, and they were just trying to find ways to maybe make some spin-offs work, to keep it going,” actress Sherrié Austin, who played Pippa McKenna in the sitcom’s final season, said to Entertainment Weekly. “But the girls had grown up, and everyone had watched that happen, so I think it had just run its course, as things do in life. It had been nine years.”