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Diff'rent Strokes - The Complete First Season



DVD Release Date: September 14, 2004 (Columbia Tri-Star Home Entertainment)
color/Approx. 588 Minutes
MSRP: $29.95
Number of discs: 3
Number of episodes: 24
Languages and subtitles: English - Mono, Closed Captioned
Special features: "A Look Back at Diff'rent Strokes" featurette with all new interviews from Todd Bridges, Conrad Bain and Charlotte Rae; "Whatchoo Talkin' Bout?" featurette on Gary Coleman; 3 Audio Commentaries with writer Fred Rubin


"Whatchoo talkin' bout, Willis?" When pint-sized Gary Coleman uttered that phrase to his TV brother, played by Todd Bridges, audiences were hooked and a star was born. But the show's popularity was based on more than the rise of the diminutive, wisecracking Coleman. Diff'rent Strokes was a pop culture phenomenon that broke through cultural barriers as well.

The story of two African-American kids from Harlem who move to Park Avenue to live with a wealthy white widower (Conrad Bain) and his precocious teenage daughter (Dana Plato) not only gave audiences lots to laugh about but gave them something to talk about. Along with their no-nonsense housekeeper (Charlotte Rae), this group was anything but average - but they reflected the changing face of the American family and brought issues of race and class into households across the nation.

Gary Coleman vaulted to network stardom after wowing producer Norman Lear with an unexpected, impromptu audition. Gary had done several TV commercials in Chicago when he was called to Hollywood in 1976 to do a commercial. Before returning home, he was summoned to Tandem Productions for a possible role in a proposed new "Little Rascals" series. Three episodes of "The Little Rascals" were filmed with Gary playing the role of Stymie, but no one bought the series. Lear then decided to groom Gary through guest appearances on such shows as The Jeffersons (he played George Jefferson's nephew Raymond) and Good Times (as an obnoxious kid named Gary Daniels from the Evans’ building).

Early in 1978, Tandem wanted to team Gary up with Conrad Bain, the urbane, middle-aged Canadian Scot who starred in "Maude". The producers came up with an idea that seemed to be workable. It was called '45 Minutes from Harlem,' and it was about a rich man in the posh suburban town of Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., who adopts a black kid from the Harlem ghetto. Conrad Bain become involved in developing a different, better version of '45 Minutes from Harlem', and for the new show, Gary acquired a brother (Todd Bridges) and the rich man character (Bain) now was living on Park Avenue with his teenage daughter and a middle-aged housekeeper--all with the well defined, believable personalities. NBC liked their script reading so much, no pilot for Diff'rent Strokes was made, the first episode aired November 3rd.

Diff'rent Strokes became such a pop culture phenomenon, in large part because of Coleman, a two-time Young Artist Award Winner (1981 Best Young Comedian, 1983 Best Young Actor in a Comedy Series), whose charm and timing were flawless. The show wasn’t afraid to tackle tough issues such as drug usage, drunk driving and child abuse. Finally, its unique combination of laughs and serious issues attracted a wide diversity of guest stars such as Janet Jackson, Reggie Jackson, Nancy Reagan, Mr. T, and Dallas Cowboy Ed “Too Tall” Jones. Diff'rent Strokes also spawned the popular spin-off series The Facts of Life. Diff'rent Strokes finished its first season with a viewing audience of over 41 million people. The series would run for 8 seasons and 189 episodes. The first 7 seasons aired on NBC, with the show moving to ABC in 1985-86 for the final season.

Memorable Episodes / Notable Guest Stars:

Memorable first season episodes included "Movin' In" where Mr. Drummond welcomes Arnold and Willis into his lavish penthouse. When Mr. Drummond tries to get Arnold and Willis into an exclusive prep school, it turns out to be just a little too exclusive for everyone's tastes in the fourth episode "Prep School." In "The Club Meeting," Willis invites his neighborhood club from Harlem to visit, but things get out of hand when he tries to impress them with his new wealth. "The Trip" was the first of three hour-long crossover episodes with Hello, Larry. Hello, Larry had the timeslot right after Diff'rent Strokes, and it was established that Philip Drummond and Larry Alder were old army buddies and Drummond's company purchased the radio station in Portland where Larry worked. "The Girls' School" was the pilot episode for The Facts of Life. Charlotte Rae was promised a smooth return back onto Diff'rent Strokes if her spin-off series had failed. It was renewed, and she left during the 2nd season of Dif'rent Strokes. It began a revolving door of housekeepers with Nedra Volz playing the somewhat grumpy Adelaide Brubaker from 1980-1982 and then Mary Jo Catlett playing the cheerful Pearl Gallagher from 1982-1986.

Notable guest stars included some familiar faces from TV and movies. John Travolta's sister, Ellen Travolta, appeared as the snooty Ms. Aimsly in "The Social Worker." Howard Morton guest starred as Miles Bordinay in "Prep School." He would later be a regular on the NBC sitcom Gimme A Break as Officer Ralph Simpson. Jack Riley set a first season record with three appearances as three different characters: in "Goodbye Dolly" as Miles Monroe, in "The New Landlord" as Charles Sutton, and as Mr. Crocker in The Facts of Life pilot episode "The Girls' School." Elinor Donahue played an attractive widow named Diane Sloane that Drummond intended to marry in "The Woman." La Wanda Page, best known for her hilarious role as Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, appeared as a long lost cousin of Willis and Arnold from Detroit in "The Relative." McLean Stevenson, Kim Richards, and the other cast members of Hello, Larry appeared in the one hour crossover episode "The Trip." Felice Schachter, Kim Fields, Julie Piekarski, and Lisa Whelchel appeared in "The Girls' School" and would move on to the main Facts of Life series.


This 3-disc set contains all 24 episodes from the first season (1978-1979). The DVD cover art (pictured above) features a photo of the cast, with a larger super-imposed photo of Gary Coleman and a background of New York City buildings. The back of the box features four smaller photos of the cast and lists a short summary and a listing of the special features and DVD specs. There are three individual Nexpak snapcases that slide out from the DVD box. All three cases have a different photo of Gary Coleman, wearing a light blue jacket, with a different pose and facial expression. There is the number of the disc in a large font in the background. The back of the cases list the episode titles and short summaries with the writer and director credits. Inside the cases, there is no photo or additional information. This seemed like a lost opportunity that they could have filled in. It would also would have been a nice touch if they would have listed the original airdates. The episodes are presented in their original airdate order. The actual discs have the same photo that is pictured on their respective snapcase. Disc 1 contains episodes 1-8, Disc 2 has episodes 9-17, and Disc 3 offers episodes 18-24.

Menu Design and Navigation:

Each DVD has a very simple menu that is easy to navigate. The main menu has the same photo as the cover art, except it has a different background with other New York City buildings pictured. There are Play All Episodes, Episode Selections, and Commentaries buttons on the first two discs. The third disc includes the Bonus Features and Previews. There is a highlighted bar under the button when you make a selection. The Episode Selections sub-menus contain a photo from the episode, as well as a larger photo of Gary Coleman on the right-hand side of the screen.

Video and Audio Quality:

The video and audio quality was about what I expected. While the episodes look better than the prints you saw on Nick at Nite/TNN in recent years or on the VHS tapes released by Columbia House, the quality was only going to be as good as the original source material which was shot on tape. The pilot episode especially looks darker than the other episodes, as it appears the lighting wasn't very good or perhaps they used lower quality tape. They appeared to fix the lighting problems in later episodes, so the colors appear much more brighter and vibrant. The mono audio is typical of many other 70's sitcoms. I noticed that the audio is usually lower when there are scenes in the living room, which was a huge set when compared to the shots in the kitchen or the boy's bedroom. Closed captioning is available on all of the episodes.

The episodes all appear to be unedited with running times around 24-25 minutes, with two notable exceptions. When I first saw the two original one-hour episodes, "Retrospective" and "The Trip," listed as separate two part episodes, I was worried they might use shorter syndication prints. My worst fears were realized. They have opening and closing credits on each episode and they run around 22 minutes, 10 seconds. We will have to wait for an official explanation on why they used the shorter syndication prints for these two episodes. They may not have been able to locate the original one-hour prints for them.

Special Features:

And now pavanbadal will provide an in-depth look at the special features.

The Diff'rent Strokes -- The Complete First Season DVD set contains three extraordinary special features. Two sets of interviews titled: "A Look Back at Diff'rent Strokes" and "Whatchoo Talkin 'Bout?" The third feature is three episode commentaries by Story Editor, Fred Rubin. Columbia Tri-star Home Entertainment is not known for special features on its classic TV titles, but this set is pretty good and does contain quality features.

Starting off on disc one, there are two episode commentaries by Story Editor Fred Rubin. He comments throughout the episode. The episodes are "Prep School" and "The Trial." In "Prep School" he talks during the opening credits about the theme song. The studio audience loved the theme and would start clapping when it was played during the tapings. He mentions this episode had a special message, like most Diff'rent Strokes episodes do. The message in this episode was racism, as Mr. Drummond's old prep school would not accept Arnold and Willis because they were African American. During the end of the episode, Arnold and Willis are eating a dessert, and Rubin mentions that the kids really did like to eat, even off camera. Rubin seems like a very nice man, but I do have one complaint, he tends to not talk for a while. Most commentaries I've seen usually they talk on and on.

In "The Trial" he talks about his partner on the show, Story Editor Al Rosen. Rosen attended UCLA and Rubin went to the University of Illinois. Rubin also talks about that Diff'rent Strokes had "softer" jokes, nothing hard like shows like All in the Family.

The third commentary is on disc two. Rubin comments on "Willis' Privacy." He mentions this is the third episode he and Al Rosen wrote. They were brand new writers just coming out of college, so this was big for them to work on a hit show. This was there second show they had done. They stayed on this show for 2 years or so, but Rosen says Diff'rent Strokes is the show people always ask him about when they see his resume. During the closing credits, Rubin shows off his name in the credits and mentions Alan Thicke's credit, who wrote the theme song.

The last disc, disc three, has the final two special features -- both are interview pieces. "A Look Back at Diff'rent Strokes" runs just under 22 minutes in duration and is probably the best feature on this set. Many people interviewed for this feature: Howard Leeds (Executive Producer), Ben Starr (Executive Script Consultant), Fred Rubin (Story Editor; who we heard on the commentaries), Conrad Bain ("Mr. Drummond"), Todd Bridges ("Willis"), Herbert Kenwith (Director) and Charlotte Rae ("Mrs. Garrett").

Leeds talks about how he was producing The Brady Bunch before to talking about the late Dana Plato. Starr talks about how Fred Silverman wanted to do the show fast, without seeing the pilot he ordered a full season. So the show never really had a pilot test and made it on the schedule without any tests. Rubin talks about how he came on the show after college, disco was popular, talks about other Norman Lear shows like The Jeffersons and One Day at a Time -- they taped very close by. Some images of the script of the first episode are shown. Conrad Bain talks about how Norman Lear brought Gary Coleman in. He also talks about how the studio audience is vital in a situation comedy. Todd Bridges spoke about the first episode, particularly the balcony scene. He mentioned the cast was very close. He talked a bit about racism, which was still a hot topic in the late 70s. Kenwith talked about the furniture on the set and how there was always laughter on the set. He talked in detail about the episode "Getting Involved" and how that was important. Charlotte Rae mentions she was involved on Diff'rent Strokes because of one reason -- Norman Lear. She had guest starred on other shows of his, like All in the Family. This feature is very good and they talk mainly about everything. It is a must to watch.

The second set of interviews is called "Whatchoo Talkin 'Bout?" It runs just under 6 minutes and features more interviews with: Conrad Bain, Howard Leeds, Herbert Kenwith, Fred Rubin and Ben Starr. They talk about Gary Coleman and how that catch phrase of his came about actually. All fans should watch this. Bain talks about how Coleman was great and he knew what he was doing at such a young age. Leeds mentions he is the most talented kid he has ever worked with. He was very professional and always on time. That catchphrase of his was created by accident; you have to watch yourself to see how! Kenwith talks about how Gary Coleman not only knew his lines, but everyone else's, too! Rubin praises that Coleman had the best comedic timing and how they wanted to use that catchphrase of his towards the end of the show, so they didn't want to waste it in the beginning of the episode. Starr mentions that was just a natural. Everyone had great things to say about him. He was for sure a very bright kid.

Like all Columbia sets, they have previews as well -- Contemporary TV, TV Action and TV Comedy Favorites.

Final Comments:

Diff'rent Strokes was one of my favorite sitcoms growing up. I would probably have to rank it as my 2nd favorite, behind only Happy Days. Overall, I was very pleased with this set. It is nice to have the episodes in the DVD format, and the extras were interesting and added to the value of the set. The fact that two of the episodes are apparently from syndication prints was disappointing, but I would still recommend this set to any fan of the show as it's filled with lots of laughs and will bring you some good memories.

Final Numbers (out of 5 stars):

Video quality: 4.3/5
Audio quality: 4.4/5
Special Features: 4.5/5
Menu Design/Navigation: 5/5
Overall: 4.4/5

-- Reviewed by Todd Fuller and pavanbdal (extras) on 08/31/04

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