Sometimes, even The A.V. Club isn’t impervious to the sexy allure of ostensible cultural garbage. Which is why there’s I Watched This On Purpose, our feature exploring the impulse to spend time with trashy-looking yet in some way irresistible entertainments, playing the long odds in hopes of a real reward and a good time.
Cultural infamy: The “cast takes a vacation” plot has been a staple of sitcoms since Lucy went to Hollywood. (Even Scrubs and Modern Family took trips to the beach last season.) But in 1982, NBC carried the concept one step further, turning what ordinarily would’ve been a four-part episode of The Facts Of Life into a full-length TV movie, shot on film with no studio audience or laugh track. Thus, one of the most banal sitcoms of the ’80s—which was an especially banal decade for sitcoms—was allowed to eat up a couple of hours of airtime. When I was a kid, a friend of my older brother used to say that his old beater of a car only took to the streets on three nights of terror: “Halloween. Friday the 13th. And the special two-hour Facts Of Life.”
Curiosity factor: I was the target audience for The Facts Of Life when it originally aired, and watched the first few seasons, before it sunk in that most Facts Of Life episodes didn’t have much to offer aside from morals, strained wordplay, and Nancy McKeon. Still, I did watch The Facts Of Life Goes To Paris on September 25, 1982—a couple of weeks after I’d turned 12—and when I got this show’s fourth season in the mail earlier this year and saw that it included the movie, I held the set back from my “sell” pile, curious to see how it would hold up. And when I watched it, I perked up early when I saw that the movie was directed by Asaad Kelada, one of the first behind-the-camera names I remember noticing when I started watching TV more closely as a teenager. (I even used to say Kelada’s name out loud when it appeared in the credits, stretching out each syllable. I was a weird kid.)
But then the movie got rolling. And…
The viewing experience: …while it wasn’t exactly a night of terror, it wasn’t the most scintillating 95 minutes I’ve ever spent in front of my TV either. In The Facts Of Life Goes To Paris, the core cast of the show jets overseas, so that Mrs. Garrett (played by Charlotte Rae) can attend a prestigious cooking academy and four of her charges from Eastland School can take part in a program at a French boarding school. Each of the girls has her own special plans for Paris: The tomboyish Jo (played by McKeon) wants to go to Le Mans; Blair (played by Lisa Whelchel) wants to find “French clothes, French perfume and a French boyfriend”; and Natalie and Tootie (played by Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields, respectively) want to soak up as much culture as they can. But when they arrive, no one’s happy with the arrangements. Mrs. Garrett’s dealing with a instructor who can’t stand her, while the girls are stuck in a school an hour outside of the city, run by a strict headmistress who will only let them go to Paris on highly regimented field trips.
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The solution to all these problems? Well, for the girls, it’s to run away from the headmistress during a trip to Notre Dame, so that they can spend their last four days in France on their own. (This might seem an unduly cruel way to treat the person responsible for their well-being while they’re in a foreign country, but bear in mind that even though they’re in high school, all these ladies are in their mid-to-late-20s.)
Jo decides to hitchhike to Le Mans, but gets sidetracked when she takes an interest in a handsome biker whose vehicle has broken down. The two of them get stuck in a hotel room together, and though they don’t share a bed, they do get close, especially after the man teaches Jo how to enjoy goat’s milk…
…and goat cheese.
Blair, meanwhile, plans to meet the man of her dreams by sketching outdoors in pretty frocks, but all she meets are a succession of middle-aged lotharios who want to take her “for a walk” or who invite her to “join me for a loaf of bread,” so she gives them all the brush, hissing at one, “In your ear, cher-ee.”
Natalie and Tootie spend their days as Paris runaways helping Natalie’s favorite novelist “G.K.”—played by Frank Bonner, a.k.a. Herb from WKRP—regain his mojo by letting him guide them around Paris while he works on a travel article. Initially, Natalie is excited about working with him, chirping, “Okay G.K., let’s g-o!” But when she realizes that he’s a liar and a drunk she snaps, “I guess we can skip Napoleon’s tomb. One stiff a day is enough!” Eventually, G.K. turns his life around, writing an insipid airplane magazine piece that Natalie gushes over for its “sensitivity.”
As for Mrs. Garrett, her meanie of a teacher won’t let her wear a white hat, and says things like, “We send them The Statue Of Liberty, they send us this one! It is not an equal exchange!” Though to be fair to the teacher, Mrs. Garrett is a disaster. She makes everyone’s soufflé fall; she puts an egg beater in a bowl of flour; and she can’t even fold her napkins into attractive centerpieces.
Eventually, with the help of a friend and fellow chef, Mrs. Garret is able to make a stunning lobster dish with dill, scallions, and sweet butter—“Sweet butter? On lobster? C’est formidable!” exclaims the teacher—and does get her white hat. And the gang reassembles in time to make their plane home, with Mrs. Garrett joking, “Peekskill’s gonna look pretty peaked after Paris!”
Those kinds of my-aren’t-we-clever lines were a Facts Of Life hallmark, and part of what ultimately makes the show tiresome for anyone over 13 years old. (Nostalgia factor aside, of course.) This was a sitcom pitched more at kids, and so it dealt in broad, simple strokes. We know “G.K.” is a writer because he talks real flowery. “French cooking” is all about how pretty the food looks. When Jo has a romance—or Blair looks for romance—they want hugs, light kisses, and hand-holding in front of picturesque landmarks, not sweaty passion or soul-baring. In sitcom form, that’s all harmless enough. As a movie though, without the bright lights and laughter, it all feels… well, “pretty peaked” is a good description.
How much of the experience wasn’t a total waste of time? Well, the scenery’s nice. In particular, Blair wanders the city at one point late in the movie in a lovely little montage, and comes to the conclusion that it’s Paris she loves, not any man.
And as I mentioned above, Nancy McKeon was a good actress, able to give Jo’s tough exterior and soft interior an equal amount of credence. When Jo says goodbye to her new friend at the airport, McKeon plays her crying scene perfectly: by trying not to cry, which is just what someone in that situation would do.
Again, there’s not much about The Facts Of Life Goes To Paris that’s groundbreaking, funny, or gripping, but in scenes like that last one, it can be touching. While I was watching it, and the camera moved off of the girls ascending an escalator to Jo’s French boyfriend standing outside, I confess I did nod appreciatively, and mutter aloud, “Asaaaaaaad Kelada!”