Running for eight years with a stonking great 141 episodes to its credit, Diff’rent Strokes will always be largely remembered for two things. Firstly, for the introduction of a remarkable bunch of child actors, in particular the outstanding Gary Coleman. Secondly, for the trouble those child actors found themselves in long after the show came to an end. While Todd Bridges had drug problems and Coleman was arrested on assault charges, it was Dana Plato’s story that saddens the most. Her career pretty much ended after the show and, having been in trouble with the law on a few occasions and appearing in Playboy magazine, her life sadly came to an end when she took a drugs overdose in 1999.
These problems become all the more poignant when re-watching the first series of Diff’rent Strokes again. Bright-eyed and clearly full of enthusiasm, the real thing that stands out is the talent on display. While Coleman stands head and shoulders above the rest- not literally, obviously – Bridges and Plato certainly had their part to play in making the show the success it was.
Diff’rent Strokes was the tale of two African-American boys, Willis (Bridges) and Arnold (Coleman) who came from Harlem to live in Manhattan with rich millionaire Phillip Drummond (played by Conrad Bain, a face you’ll recognise instantly) after their mother, and Drummond’s housekeeper, died. Also in the house are daughter Kimberly (Plato) and housekeeper Mrs. Garrett. After some initial teething problems, the new family quickly find their feet and Arnold and Willis adapt to their newfound wealth.
The joy of revisiting season one is that you can see how quickly the actors, and the scripts, gel together. Willis at first is very uneasy with the prospect of leaving Harlem, while Arnold can’t believe his luck. Their interactions with the family Drummond is great to watch, the chemistry between all the actors clear to see. Bridges and Coleman in particular clearly got on very well together, as an interview with the show’s creators on the DVD extras clarifies. Their interplay and natural charisma shines through, so much so that you could be forgiven for forgetting they’re just actors and not really brothers after all.
Coleman’s performances are what you’ll want to buy this series for, as he really is captivating to watch. Just ten years old when this series was filmed, his comic timing and physicality is astonishing. The show’s creators knew they were on to something when they cast him and quite rightly give him centre stage at every opportunity. Whether it’s back-chatting Mr. Drummond, riffing with Willis or delivering his famous, ‘Whatchoo talkin’ ‘bout?’ catchphrase, he genuinely does ring out the laughs.
The episodes themselves – 24 of them are included here – usually come with a clear moral message. While this might seem twee by today’s standards, it’s honourable that the creators and writers actively wanted to put out a show that made viewers think. In particular, the issue of racial divide is a regular theme throughout series one. One episode in particular, The Social Worker, tackles the subject of whether black children should be living with a white family at all. Another, Mother’s Last Visit, paints Drummond’s mother as an openly racist person. Naturally, the conclusion of both episodes is that we should all love each other and both are well told, if rather cheesy, episodes.
Other episodes deal with issues as varied as how to tackle bullies, spanking children and what to do when you’ve witnessed a crime. The moral high ground is clear for all to see here and if the thought of being preached to puts you off then this honestly might not be for you. It stops short of the actors looking directly to the camera and saying, ‘Hey kids, be nice to one another, eat your greens and you’ll turn out just fine’, but only just.
The DVD extras are excellent, if a little slight. The aforementioned 21-minute interview with the creators, which also includes input from Bain and Bridges, is illuminating. They all clearly had a great time making it and their enthusiasm for their time on the series still shows. Just as good is the brief featurette on how Arnold’s catchphrase came to be, plus the requisite clips of him uttering the immortal lines. There are also audio commentaries on four episodes too, which are fine but not outstanding.
Diff’rent Strokes: Season One is definitely worth a look. If you like your comedy with a lot of heart, this is a winner on every level. Just one word of warning: of the 24 episodes included here, two are just a couple of clip shows that were no doubt designed to bring new viewers in when it was first aired.
Diff’rent Strokes: Season One is out now.