Imitation of Life

The renaissance of 1980s pop culture has hit a fever pitch in recent years. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are now playing in a movie theater near you. The Transformers are on their way to screens later this year. Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony merchandise is now being bought for the children of adults who grew up with these brands. Clearly, Generations X and Y have a soft spot for the trappings of their youth. Riding on the wave of New Wave nostalgia is The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode, which returns to New York after smaller sold-out runs last year. The original series, centering on a group of girls (Blair, Tootie, Natalie, and Jo) and their middle-aged housemother (Mrs. Garrett) at a private school in Westchester County, dealt with serious issues in its nine-year run. But their PG-13 escapades are tame compared with writer Jamie Morris's funny, but not fully fleshed out, fictionalized episode, which would be rated R for raunchy.

A budget crisis is forcing the Eastland school board to close the dorm housing the four girls and to demote Mrs. Garrett from housemother to assistant cook in the cafeteria. The only way to keep the group from splitting up is to raise the funds needed to balance the budget. How are four adventuresome teens and their feisty confidante going to earn so much so quickly? Why, by engaging in the world's oldest profession!

Women-only private schools can inspire erotically charged fantasies on their own. When the ladies are played by lads (as is the case here), sex is even more in the forefront of the viewer's thoughts. The characterizations range from subtly hilarious impersonations (Brooks Braselman's joyful Natalie) to comically out-there takes (Jaquay Thomas's hysterical Tootie and Jamie Morris's game Mrs. Garrett). As tomboy Jo, mullet-topped Charlie Logan speaks in a butch baritone and gives an amusingly sincere performance.

Christopher Kenney's Blair is the least similar to the original television character. In this production, Blair is portrayed as a libidinous hoochie, whereas in the show she was an "anything but" girl, due to the strong religious beliefs of TV actress Lisa Whelchel. However, Kenney is the most believable as a slutty teenager with a heart of gold, and he makes one bodacious blonde.

The script is focused more on sending up these beloved characters and getting them into naughty situations than on plot development and settling on its structure. It takes a lot of exposition to get the ladies to setting up a whorehouse, and the story machinations are a little mechanized. A simpler setup would've allowed more playtime with the characters.

During the earlier scene changes, the audio from old commercials played, which was an excellent solution to the ongoing problem of dead time during the changes. Yet it wasn't continued throughout the whole show, perhaps because of the overabundance of scenes. With the commercials giving the show the feel of a sitcom, the musical numbers that popped up later seemed to be coming out of left field.

This production would've been more successful if it had stuck to the conventions of a sitcom or a musical rather than trying to be a hybrid piece. Of course, it's difficult for a writer (Morris) and a director (Kenney) to get the proper perspective when they are also the show's stars. An outsider would've been able to look at the show as a whole, thus shaping it while allowing Morris and Kenney to focus on their dance steps and costume changes.

There is money to be made in peddling the past—just ask the guys who created the Ninja Turtles. Sadly, an interest in doing something innovative is never the reason for recycling old entertainment. If the creators of The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode had put more creativity and inspiration into their endeavor, perhaps this episode would've been as special as the "special episodes" it emulates.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post