Monday, May 28, 2018

The Unshakeables: Tootie’s Tantrum

When I introduced the idea of The Unshakeables in an earlier blog, I used the term to describe episodes of TV shows that lingered in the memory long after they had ended. They were powerful in a way that most shows – even good shows – are not.

My first nominee was a potent and prescient episode of The Bold Ones: The Lawyers. So you might be surprised that the next episode selected for this status comes from a sitcom that was not award-winning, groundbreaking or even consistently funny. In fact, The Facts of Life was often mocked for its frequent reliance on “very special episodes” that tackled weightier topics in such a heavy-handed way that it undercut their sincerity.

But the season three episode “Starstruck” stuck with me because of a scene that would normally be the last thing I’d want to watch ­­– a temper tantrum. 

It is triggered when Mrs. Garrett tells Tootie that she cannot attend a Jermaine Jackson concert, despite Tootie being president of his fan club, and receiving free tickets from the concert promoter. There is a charity event scheduled for the same night that they had agreed to attend prior to finding out about the show, and Mrs. Garrett believes that commitment should be honored.

But Tootie is having none of it. 

This was a scene that, had it been played at the same level as every other scene in the series, would not be particularly memorable. Like most Comfort TV era sitcoms, The Facts of Life was content to stay within an established emotional range. There would be scenes when characters would be joyful or sad or angry, but their feelings would be expressed in a way that was consistent with how its stories are told.

Here, however, Kim Fields was allowed to break through those limits. Tootie’s desperation to attend that concert reaches a frenzied emotional pitch that takes not just Mrs. Garrett by surprise, but the viewers as well.

I remember that moment from when the episode first aired. I was doing something else at the time, but the frantic sounds coming from the TV drew me back into the show, and startled me with their intensity even then.

Charlotte Rae also plays the moment well: “We’ll go,” she says quietly, visibly shaken, as Tootie collapses into her arms, sobbing. “It’s all right. We’ll go.” Any anger over Tootie’s defiance has been displaced by disbelief. 

That decision doesn’t sit well with the other girls, who deride Mrs. Garrett for giving in. “I’ve got to work on my kicking and screaming,” Natalie quips.

“This wasn’t a tantrum, girls,” she responds. “You didn’t see her. She was…hysterical. Oh, she was going to go to that concert if she had to jump out the window and run all the way to the city.”

Jo: “Come on, Mrs. Garrett, not Tootie.”

Mrs. Garrett: “That’s right. Not our Tootie. But right now, she’s not our Tootie.”

Blair: “Do you think taking Tootie to the concert’s gonna help?”

Mrs. Garrett: “At this point, it’s the only thing I can do.”

If “Starstruck” delivered only a study of the force of celebrity worship, it would be memorable. But it also shows what can happen when that fantasy of meeting your idol crashes into a hard reality. 

After the concert Tootie goes backstage to meet Jermaine. It doesn't go well. 

It's a scene that will likely resonate with a lot of people who got to have a moment with someone famous they have admired from afar - myself included. At one point I felt a strong attachment to a particular TV personality, and after a period of time established a connection with that person – but it turned out little better than what happens to Tootie here. Long time ago, well over it, but it’s soul-crushing at the time.

Yet another reason why, in this case, a very special episode of The Facts of Life actually is kind of special.


  1. Mr. Hofstede, what do you have to say about the "Fear Strikes Back" episode of "The Facts of Life"?

    1. Also a good episode, even with its PSA overtones.

  2. I remember Mrs. Garrett in the same episode comparing Tootie's behavior to that of the female Beatles fans who screamed & swooned over the Beatles back in the 1960s. I often wondered what led Jermaine Jackson to play himself in this situation, as it made him, and rock stars in general, look bad. I guess he was paid enough anyway.

    I've never felt that intensely about any celebrity, though I came somewhat close with Johnny Carson in the late 1970s, at least writing a Spanish class composition about him as the person I admire most. I eventually found out his public & private personas were VERY different.

    1. No offense, Jon H, but can one REALLY call Jermaine Jackson a ROCK star? Former "That Metal Show" cohost Eddie Trunk has complained bitterly about the lack of genuine rock representation at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards.

    2. Or as someone posted on YouTube beneath a clip from this episode, "Did anyone ever really get that excited over Jermaine?"

      Jon- I shared your admiration for Johnny Carson, and yes he was not a perfect person. But of course all he really owed us was his talent when his show was on, and he never phoned it in.

  3. Watched this as a kid and recently rewatched the entire series. Tootie's outburst was definitely out of the norm for the show, and at first, I thought Fields was actually freaking out. Kudos for her, and the show, for letting her go full throttle here.

    The final episode of the series though? What a let down.

    1. I agree - though I still would have checked out the spinoff with Blair running the school.