Diff’rent Strokes (1978) Retro TV Review

By: Karl Stern (@wiwcool, karl@whenitwascool.com)

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Diff’rent Strokes first aired in the fall television season of 1978 on November 3 and ran for eight seasons ending in the spring of 1986. The show starred Conrad Bain as single rich widow Phillip Drummond, Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson, Todd Bridges as Arnold’s brother Willis Jackson, Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond, and Charlotte Rae as housekeeper Edna Garrett. After watching season one, episode one I’m not sure how this show made it one season, much less eight, but eventually they got things right and Diff’rent Strokes became a staple of my childhood into my teenage years.

The premise of the show was simple and somewhat out of time. I’m not sure how the main theme would play today where a single rich white man ends up raising two young African-American orphans left to him by his former housekeeper. It’s somewhat uncomfortable if you think about it for a minute. The show is basically- let me show you disadvantaged youths the world of a rich white man! See isn’t this better? In fact, the original title of the show was 45 Minutes from Harlem. This theme lessened as the seasons went on and began focusing more on the blended family aspect of the show and the growing pains of youth. But, episode one of season one just hits you over the head repeatedly with the theme that this rich old white dude now has acquired a novelty who just happens to be children of a different race. Yeah, sorry to be a killjoy but I didn’t care for this episode.

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Looking back at my childhood when this show was constantly on television I remember being largely indifferent to it. I guess I hate Indiff’rent strokes. I had two younger sisters and maybe one or both of them liked the show but I seem to remember it being on all the time. Come home from school? Diff’rent Strokes. Leave to go to school? Diff’rent Strokes. Wake up in the middle of the night? ‘What ‘chu talkin’ bout Willis?’

The appeal of Diff’rent Strokes seemed to be more about the physical comedy of Gary Coleman than the storylines. That too is a little uncomfortable if you think about it for more than a minute. Gary Coleman had his growth stunted by a serious kidney disease, thus he looked many years younger than he actually was. In episode one, season one he seemed to be portraying a child of about six years of age when, in reality he was about ten.

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As the show and the actors matured it seemed to get better with the episodes relying less on simplistic comedy and more on storytelling. Diff’rent Strokes featured a number of “special episodes” which were similar to after school specials in dealing with complex and adult themes like racism, drugs, kidnapping, and even sexual abuse.

Mid-way through the second season, the housekeeper Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae) left the show to star in her own successful spin-off The Facts of Life. Janet Jackson (yes, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Janet Jackson) made recurring appearances from 1980-1984 as Charlene DuPrey.

Janet Jackson

Janet Jackson

Unfortunately, you can’t talk about Diff’rent Strokes without talking about the troubled lives of the child actors on the show. Todd Bridges battled drug addiction in his twenties and was even tried for the attempted murder of a drug dealer named Kenneth “Tex” Clay whom he was alleged to have shot. He was found not guilty. Gary Coleman died at the age of 42, had well publicized financial troubles, and seemed to have been exploited nearly his entire life. Dana Plato became pregnant during a later season of the show and was largely written off of it after that. She then famously battled drug addiction and ultimately died at the age of 34.

The legacy of Diff’rent Strokes is a complicated one. It seems as though it tried to present a blended family made up of two orphans of a different race but did so heavy handedly. It did spin off the successful and well remembered The Facts of Life, but the difficult and tragic lives of it’s three main child stars will forever taint the legacy of Diff’rent Strokes.

You can listen to our audio podcast review of Diff’rent Strokes - Episode one, season one by clicking here.

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