In Diff'rent Strokes: The Complete Third Season, white millionaire Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain), his adopted black sons Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges), and his biological daughter Kimberly (Dana Plato) form an unlikely family that has to deal with the harsh realities of life as well as the typical sitcom hijinks of puppy love, schoolyard taunts and crazy schemes. Coleman's instinctive comic timing and his appealing co-stars provide plenty of fun, making the show's overly earnest Morality Play moments palatable. Shout! Factory's 3-disc DVD set does a decent job handling the technical aspects of its presentation.
Studio: Shout! Factory (originally produced by Tandem Productions)
Length: 507 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: none (Closed-captioned for the hearing impaired)
Season Premiere Date: November 12, 1980
Disc Release Date: July 17, 2012
Review Date: August 14, 2012
“Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum;
What might be right for you may not be right for some.”
Since the end of Seinfeld in 1998, NBC has fallen from first place to being ranked below Fox, a network that didn’t even exist the last time they were at the bottom of the barrel, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. As the Peacock Network entered the 1980s, the network’s attempt to pull itself together led to a string of high-profile fiascos, such as Supertrain and Pink Lady, while the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics cost it hundreds of millions in ad revenues. Still, they persisted long enough to dominate network television for most of the remainder of the 20th century. One of the few shows that proved enough of a success to carry them through this tough period, and one that had a marked influence on family sitcoms, was Diff’rent Strokes, which ran seven of its eight years on NBC; its final season aired on ABC.
Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain) is the CEO of a large New York City industrial firm, and the widowed father to a teenage daughter, Kimberly (Dana Plato). In 1978, to fulfill the deathbed wishes of his beloved housekeeper, Lucy Jackson, he took in her two sons Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis (Todd Bridges). While Willis was suspicious of Mr. Drummond’s intentions at first, Arnold was thrilled to be living in a luxurious Park Avenue penthouse instead of the Harlem slum they lived in when their parents were alive. A year later, Mr. Drummond adopted the boys. Their current maid—just like Bain’s last series, Maude, there were three over the course of the series—is the elderly Adelaide Brubaker (Nedra Volz), while Arnold’s best friends Dudley Ramsey (Shavar Ross) and Robbie Hays (Steven Mond) show up from time to time. In this third season, the family is held hostage in a bank robbery, Mr. Drummond gets in an accident, Arnold and Willis embrace their African heritage, Kimberly helps a friend in trouble, and Willis falls in love with a girl named Charlene DuPrey (Janet Jackson).
Thanks to its infrequent appearances in reruns and the cast members’ widely publicized personal troubles, not to mention the untimely deaths of Dana Plato and Gary Coleman, most conversations about the show over the past two decades have tended to revolve around the cast’s off-camera woes and Arnold’s ubiquitous catchphrase “Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis,” which Coleman came to view as an albatross around his neck. There were even two TV movies about it in 2000 and 2006; the second one was okay, but the less said about the first one, the better. Watching the show the 21st century shows how much times have changed over the 34 years since Arnold first asked Willis what he was talking about, but it still provides some good, solid entertainment.
The show works best when it focuses on the interactions of the Drummonds as a family. Naturally, as he has the greatest comedic sophistication, with the same lickety-split timing of a seasoned Vaudevillian, Coleman gets the show’s best lines, managing to make even the most cornball jokes work. Todd Bridges works well with him, making it believable that they could be brothers, and his character has more of an edge; he still looks at his new surroundings with a cynical eye, even calling out Mr. Drummond on his beliefs at times. Conrad Bain handles his role admirably, even getting a few chuckles out of some intentionally bad jokes with a charmingly genial deadpan delivery. Dana Plato has a great deal of charm and chemistry with her cast, but she’s more effective with the comic business than the dramatic material, but the same could be said about the show's writers. When the show tries to tackle serious issues, it can become sanctimonious and even depressing, while trying to end each episode on an artificial high note. As one of the few bona-fide hit sitcoms of the early 1980s, Diff’rent Strokes set the tone for family sitcoms for much of the decade, in which the genre found a middle ground between Norman Lear-style ripped-from-the-headlines stories and Sherwood Schwartz-style hijinks and heart. As Norman Lear’s company, Tandem Productions, produced it, and Brady Bunch co-producer Howard Leeds was the executive producer, it’s no coincidence. While just a few years earlier, it was unthinkable that the Brady kids or the Partridges would ever have to deal with things like physical disability and racism, the 1980s were the exact opposite; Arnold, Webster, Punky, Ricky and their ilk were subjected to all manner of horrors on their respective shows. The writers’ intentions are admirable, and they try their best not to trivialize things that, unless your name is Seth MacFarlane, don’t lend themselves to comedy, they can take themselves too seriously when trying to look at these issues. In the context of its era, it’s understandable why they would want to go in that direction. Family sitcoms had gotten a bad rap from those who wrote about television for being insubstantial and unrealistic (though comedy is not as bound to the boundaries of reality as drama), and this show tried to do something to change that perception. It has earned its place in TV history for being the first successful show to suggest the idea that familial love can transcend racial differences, and as a progenitor of other child-centered sitcoms with similar themes and tones.
This season’s guest stars include a number of faces TV fans may find familiar, including Kari Michaelsen (Gimme A Break!), Dody Goodman (Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman), Rosalind Chao (AfterMASH, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; she later returned as Arnold’s teacher), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters, Oz), Meeno Peluce (Voyagers!; his sister, Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye, would make a guest appearance on the show’s penultimate season) and former Dallas Cowboys defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Crossing over from the show’s spin-off, The Facts of Life, then soaring in popularity during its sophomore season in the post-Strokes timeslot, are Lisa Whelchel as Blair, Kim Fields as Tootie, and Mindy Cohn as Natalie; Kimberly once attended Eastland Academy.
The series earned its best ratings this season, coming in 19th place and outranking all other NBC series except Real People, its 12th-ranked 8 PM lead-in, and the 9th-ranked Little House on the Prairie.
The episodes are presented in their original broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Shot on videotape, the colors have a rather cool look to them. Contrast and black levels are average. The show has never looked like a million bucks, but it’s a vast improvement over the other options: hand-me-down tape copies by those with the foresight to have taped it or YouTube clips, likely taken from those same tapes.
The episodes’ mono soundtracks are presented here in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. The show’s classic theme song is very heavy on the low- and mid-frequencies while light on the high ends, while dialogue has the same compressed sound as other shows of the era. Nevertheless, it’s listenable, the dialogue is easy to understand, and it’s probably for the best that Shout! did not try to do anything to the sound to give it an artificial kick. Let’s face it, no one is going to use a dialogue-driven sitcom that predates stereo TV as demo material.
There are no extras whatsoever.
Despite its tendency to flirt with bathos, Diff’rent Strokes remains a fun, nostalgic early 1980s family comedy buoyed by Gary Coleman’s dynamic presence. Its DVD history has been a tumultuous one. Sony, successor-in-interest to its production company, gave up on it after releasing two seasons, but now, after six years, two less than the show ran to begin with, Shout! Factory has picked up the slack and seems to have made it a priority, with the next season already announced for a November release.