Tune in Tonight: "The Facts of Life"
Not having watched sitcoms in a very long time, I have no way of knowing the current state of “very special episodes,” if they even still make them. Should they still exist, I can only imagine the sensitive subjects would be such very modern problems as internet porn, or climate change. We simply exhausted the subjects of teen drinking, AIDS, and child molestation back in the 80s, when television was at its most clumsily earnest peak, and all sitcoms got heavy for at least one episode per season, before returning to the usual shenanigans of characters getting stuck in elevators or having to juggle two dates in one night.
Even The Facts of Life took several deep dives into well-intentioned but heavy-handed schmaltz, addressing eating disorders, drugs, suicide, sexual assault, drunk driving, illiteracy, parental death, plagiarism, censorship, and teenage prostitution. It somehow wasn’t until the ninth and final season before the show finally addressed the issue of losing one’s virginity, by which time the main characters were no longer spunky teenage prep school students, but adult women in their twenties, and it ends up being one of the most oddly paced, atonal 22 minutes you’ll ever watch.
Despite being on the air for nearly a decade, the show was still winning its Saturday night time slot, even if it by that point it required the audience to accept without question that four of the main characters turned down numerous personal and career opportunities so they could stay in the same town where they attended high school years after graduation, working first in a bakery and then in a Spencer’s Gifts-like store. Even then, the show’s writers resorted to a bunch of standard struggling sitcom gimmicks, with fantasy episodes, celebrity guest appearances, and adding several new characters, such as Mrs. Garrett’s ditzy sister Beverly Ann (Cloris Leachman), who moved in and took over mothering the girls after Mrs. Garrett had the good sense to get the hell out of Peekskill, Beverly Ann’s irritating adopted son Andy (Mackenzie Astin), and, because America had just recently discovered the existence of Australia, Eastland exchange student Pippa (Sherri Krenn). One of George Clooney’s first major acting roles was when he was cast in season seven as hunky handyman George, a character who ultimately added so little to the proceedings that he was written out barely a season later. It seemed to be at least five years too late to pull the “a character decides to have sex” card out of the ol’ screenwriter sleeve, but they went for it anyway.
Nothing has been oversold to teenagers more than the importance of losing one’s virginity (second place is going to one’s prom, stay tuned for next week’s article). If you were to watch any programming made for teenagers, particularly in the 80s and 90s, you would think that, even when its consensual, the event is both preceded and followed by weeks of soul searching and questioning one’s own choices, while worrying about whether your friends will treat you differently. The Facts of Life played right into that level of faux gravity, with parental guidance warnings both before the episode aired and in TV Guide. Lisa Whelchel was reportedly so offended by it that she demanded to be written out of the episode, the first and only time in the series’ entire run.
The handwringing both the show’s producers and characters do over the subject would make more sense if Natalie (Mindy Cohn), the character chosen to do the deed after Whelchel refused, was fourteen, sixteen, or even eighteen. But no, she’s twenty-one here, legally old enough to drink and a college senior. That the loss of her virginity is such a momentous occasion that it shakes up the entire household is a hard sell on its own, let alone that she’s the first in her friends’ group to go through with it. But sure, let’s just pretend that it’s entirely plausible that, despite numerous boyfriends and even an odd marriage proposal over the years, none of the girls have even stayed overnight with a man yet.
The episode opens with Natalie dressed in a bizarre, shin-length business suit. An entire separate article could be written about how the producers of The Facts of Life addressed rumored late in the series weight gain in their lead actresses by draping them in so many layers of fabric that they looked like survivors of a Joann’s explosion. Though she looks like she’s about to attend a Christian bookstore owners’ convention, Natalie announces that it’s the anniversary of when she and her boyfriend, Snake, fell in love, and she knows he has something special planned for her.
Snake is played by Robert Romanus, as seen in last week’s The Best of Times. Romanus, as I pointed out in the earlier article, is most famous for playing Mike Damone, the resident scumbag of Fast Times at Ridgemont High who knocked up Stacey Hamilton and then refused to take her calls. This is probably a compliment to Romanus’ performance, but once you play a legendary piece of shit, it’s hard for an audience to see you as anything else but that character (this is why seeing James Spader play a good guy always seems weird and wrong). Romanus simply isn’t believable as an amiable goofball who, we later discover, is so emotionally overwhelmed by the experience of making love with Natalie that he has to take some time away from her to sort his feelings.
Natalie and Snake go on their date, and return just before dawn. Natalie’s clothes are disheveled, and Snake is missing his necktie, suggesting they’ve either just had sex or were thrown out of a moving vehicle. The entire household knows by morning what’s happened, and everyone reacts to it with varying degrees of implausibility. Tootie gloats and crows about it like she’s the one who just got back from a trip to Bone Town, Jo spills her cereal in classic “wha-wha-wha-whaaaaat?” slapstick fashion, and Beverly Ann collapses into a chair like she’s gotten a telegram reporting terrible news about her sweetheart fighting over in the Allied Front. She later claims that she’s so shaken up that she might accidentally drive her car off the road.
Granted, this is a sitcom, and reactions are always played big for laughs, but it’s the primary reason why this episode is so strange in tone and message. For one thing, with the possible exception of your parents and your best friend, absolutely no one cares when you lose your virginity. There’s no need to issue a press release about it. I wrote about it in my diary, and told my best friend, who proceeded to give me a high five, and then we went about our day. She didn’t grill me for details, nor was there any sort of fretful debate with other people as to whether I was “ready” to make such an important decision. Beverly Ann makes her feelings clearly known, while Jo is inexplicably elliptical, refusing to offer her opinion one way or another, and Tootie tells Natalie that, while she’s not passing judgment, she and her boyfriend are waiting for marriage, which was something you’d think would have come up in a decade long friendship, but evidently takes Natalie by surprise.
If all her friends and her former housemother’s weird, kind of dumb sister reacting strangely to the news that she’s lost her virginity isn’t difficult enough, Natalie gets a phone call from Snake telling her that he can’t see her for a while. “What? It’s not like he’s dumping me,” she says, as the other girls look on in ashen-faced shock, as if Natalie’s gotten the test results back and it’s not looking good. Natalie hangs around the house for the next couple of days waiting to hear from Snake, and somehow, considering how often it’s spoken about, the loss of her virginity is the most interesting thing to happen in the entire household recently. I challenge you—think back to when you lost your virginity, and how many people knew about it. Not counting the person you lost it to, if you can come up with more than two, you’re a rarity. You’re also an attention whore, and should be ashamed of yourself.
But I digress. Though Natalie puts up a stoic front, she admits that Snake more or less breaking up with her has made her regret her decision to sleep with him. Jo, still positively sphynx-like when it comes to her opinion on virginity, reminds Natalie that she was still a good person before having sex with Snake, which wasn’t something Natalie was questioning, but fine. The words are barely out of Jo’s mouth before Snake shows up, and admits to Natalie that he found the whole clumsy, two minute deflowering experience to be so powerful that he wants to marry her. It’s heavily implied that it was his first time too, which, no. No. No, sitcom writers, you’re not going to try to convince an entire audience that a 30 year-old truck driver who calls himself “Snake” is going to wait until he finds that special someone to have sex. That stretches plausibility to very nearly the breaking point, which comes a moment later.
The two minute conversation with Jo has evidently empowered Natalie to the point where not only does she decline Snake’s suggestion that they should get married, but also hints that she wants to end the relationship, and, indeed, other than one more episode a few weeks later, that’s the last we see of him. We do get one last bit of weirdness before Snake is sent on his way, however, when it’s revealed that Natalie, who’s been dating him for at least a year, doesn’t know his real first name. It’s a set-up to the classic sitcom punchline of his real name being something comically nerdy (as seen in Night Court, when we learn that Dan Fielding’s real first name is Reinhold). In this case, Snake’s real name is the equally unlikely Norbert, but the audience is too busy being stuck on what that means to laugh. After all that, Natalie lost her virginity to the guy she’s been dating and she thought this whole time that his name was actually Snake?
Not that anyone reading this is probably younger than 35 anyway, but I don’t really have any advice to offer when it comes to the question of losing or maintaining one’s virginity. It’s been a long time for me, but I don’t imagine the basics have changed much—try to make it happen with someone you at least like, use protection, don’t expect to feel all that different afterward, etc. But I will say this: absolutely do not lose your virginity to a guy when you only know his nickname. I cannot stress this enough. Unless his nickname is “Bill” or “Jimmy,” just don’t do it. Whether they’re named “Spike,” “Lefty,” or “T-Bone,” unless they tell you what the actual name on their birth certificate is, keep those clothes on. That’s more useful advice than you’ll get from this episode of The Facts of Life, which is gently chiding and little slut-shamey, and yet rewards the viewer with a heartwarming marriage proposal at the end. Sure, Natalie (correctly) turns down the proposal, but what is the takeaway message here, that if you’re lucky the boy who deflowers you will want to marry you immediately afterward? While that’s not completely out of the question, the chances of that happening are very, very, very, very, very low. Very low. Like, so low they can’t be measured. You get the idea.
If the writers were interested in doing anything beyond checking off “virginity” on the list of Important Topics they hadn’t covered yet, they would have made it so Snake did dump Natalie afterward, a more common occurrence, particularly with fickle teenagers. The episode is coyly playing it both ways—Natalie is made to feel ashamed for what she’s done, but ultimately she’s rewarded for it, when, in reality, rarely do either of those scenarios play out when it comes to losing one’s virginity. Unless you lost it with the school history teacher, or auctioned it off as part of a ski trip fundraiser, no one’s going to care, and, unless your religion tells you otherwise, you will neither be punished or rewarded for it. It’s like getting your ears pierced—it hurts for a minute, then you forget about it and go on with your life.
Original airdate: February 6, 1988