Early seasons consistently produced good episodes, at least by 70s sitcom standards. They never shied away from controversial issues, the early seasons dealt with busing, racism, class disparity, racial profiling, and identity. Gary Coleman became an instant pop culture sensation and carried the show for eight seasons. Watch Coleman's debut on Good Times and I dare you not to laugh, the kid had real acting chops. Willis was more skeptical and took longer to warm to his new lifestyle so far from Harlem, a recurring theme of the early seasons.
As the seasons pass by there's a sense of the doomed liberalism of the Jimmy Carter era morphing into the lopsided Reagan 80s . The progressive sentiments of the early seasons shifted into a Reagan era status quo. Story lines focused on moral issues instead of social ones. Pop Culture references and celebrity cameos also became a bigger part of the show. Much of the focus shifted to Arnold's adventures at school, while Willis is usually seen getting ready for a date or hunched over a desk studying for exams in the latter seasons. In season 5 Mr. Drummond marries a TV Fitness instructor (very 80s) and takes in her young son Sam, obviously there to replace Arnold (now a teenager) as the young jokester.
There's something moving in the way a sitcom (as many others of it's time) tried to take on every serious topic imaginable. Bullying. Prejudice. Episodes on sexual predators, drug and alcohol addiction, and every issue on the news were common. Nancy Reagan appeared on the show to tell the kids to "just say no." Muhammad Ali traded insults with Arnold, Kareem-Abdul-Jabaar played a teacher, and Janet Jackson played Willis's girlfriend. The eight seasons are a treasure of pop culture collective memory.
Whenever Diff'rent Strokes comes up in conversation, the tragedies surrounding the show's cast members are what most people remember. Dana Plato had a troubled history with the show, reduced to occasional appearances after a pregnancy and a follow up career plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. She passed away in 1999 at age 34. Todd Bridges had many public encounters with the law but managed to get his life together. He's the last surviving member of the cast. Gary Coleman found life after the series especially difficult, reduced to cameos in low budget movies and reality television.
To be a TV star in the 1970s was something akin to indentured servitude: movies got all the accolades, but TV stars were the grinders. Long days, financial improprieties, predatory adults, all thankless work for the masses watching the box. Coleman suffered from a kidney condition through the show's entire run, requiring dialysis 3-4 times a day, adds a subtle heroism to how he carried each episode.
For its final season Diff'rent Strokes moved to ABC, a shadow of what it used to be. The series farewell deals with Arnold working for the newspaper and breaking a story on a steroid ring at his school. Arnold's discovered a passion for writing - suggesting a follow up series that never happened, sort of a Lou Grant set at a High School.
With the third season of Stranger Things now running on Netflix that's set in 1985, there could be no better time to revisit Diff'rent Strokes to satisfy your 80s nostalgia fix. Here's some recommended episodes for beginners:
S1E1 - "Movin In" The first episode with Arnold and Willis adjusting to life on Park Avenue.
S3E1&2 - "The Bank Job" Two part episode that finds Arnold and Willis taken hostage. Think Dog Day Afternoon as a sitcom.
S3E14 - "The Bus" White parents are outraged over forced busing laws to integrate their "safe" schools and of course Arnold and Willis are at the center of it. Did Joe Biden see this one?
S5E24 - "My Fair Larry" Andrew Dice Clay shakes up the Drummond household. Enough said.
S5E1 - "Arnold Meets Mr. T" Perhaps the most 80s episode ever.