When I was growing up, The Facts of Life was always on. Those afternoon reruns were virtually inescapable. Changing the channel was hard work. I became a fan, but it wasn’t like I had a choice. Or maybe this introduction is just me trying to skirt the truth: I loved those girls.
The series lasted for nine (!!!) seasons, and when a show goes for that long, there are going to be some retoolings involved. The first season had a larger cast and was less “fluffy” in tone, but it wasn’t until they focused on just four girls (and one Mrs. Garrett) that The Facts of Life grew into a juggernaut. And then it just kept going and going, until we’d learned every last bit of minutiae, down to Natalie’s preferred toothbrush color. (Purple.)
During the show’s peak, Mrs. Garrett and company owned and operated a bakery called “Edna’s Edibles.” It served many purposes. If they wanted to introduce a one-off character, it was as simple as having them crave Mrs. Garrett’s cookies. If they worried that audiences would balk at the idea of an older lady being so constantly present in the lives of four young women, having those four young women work with her was a good explanation.
Edna’s Edibles was a great backdrop, but as the series entered its seventh season, it’d lost its shine. Ratings were down. Blair was sixty-years-old. The producers needed to spark our interest again, and because fire has so often equaled television ratings, that’s what they went with. In the seventh season premiere, Edna’s Edibles burned to the ground.
And it led to one of the most simultaneously great/ridiculous conceptions in TV history: Over Our Heads.
See, Edna and her girls weren’t going down without a fight. They’d lost the bakery, but from those ashes, a chrome and neon phoenix would rise. They’d rebuild, bigger and better than before.
This time, they’d be business partners with equal shares.
This time, they’d do it right.
This time, instead of brownies, they’d sell inflatable palm trees and porcelain penguins.
Over Our Heads! A firmly 1985 pop culture paradise of pointless novelties and mood lighting, it was pretty obviously based on Spencer Gifts – which, as I’ve written about before, was my personal church for everything cool or current. If you remember what Spencer Gifts used to be like, before they specialized in marijuana posters and breast-shaped coffee mugs, you can’t look at Over Our Heads and not make the connection. (Admittedly, the girls’ version was more of a Lisa Frank-meets-Spencer Gifts deal, but the point stands.)
As a child, the ludicrousness of the girls’ new business venture was lost on me. Today, not so much. They operated a bakery with success, but I don’t see how that would correlate with selling lawn flamingos and disembodied robot hands. It was so absurd. It’s easy to understand why this marked the point where people stopped watching The Facts of Life and liking it and started watching it to poke fun.
But hey, I was young. I didn’t know any better. For me, once Over Our Heads was introduced, that was the show’s draw. It wasn’t about Jo anymore. It never would be again. This place had Gumby figures. It had rubber sharks. It even had…the red thing.
The “red thing” isn’t my favorite thing ever, but outside of cherry Jolly Ranchers and the Emperor’s Royal Guard, it’s a strong contender for my favorite red thing ever.
During the store’s first appearance (in an episode conveniently titled “Grand Opening”), even the girls are confused by what they’ve chosen to sell. No item illustrated that more than the “red thing” – a coiled series of plastic tubes that could be pulled into various shapes. When customers asked what it was, they had no idea.
I had no idea either, but man, I WANTED it. The red thing marked my first longing for absurdist kitsch. It also perfectly encapsulates why I loved Over Our Heads so much. The love is hard to describe, much like the red thing.
In tribute to Over Our Heads, today, we dissect it. Won’t lie, because you’ll learn the truth in a minute anyway: There wasn’t much in the way of known brands or popular characters. It’s mostly goofy stuff of indiscernible origin, but sometimes, even that’s worth dissecting.
Before I start rattling off what I found, play along with a bunch of store images, linked below.
|#1: GUMBY & POKEY
I don’t know anyone who hasn’t owned at least one rubber Gumby. These specific Gumby and Pokey figures were much larger than the norm, and I absolutely wanted them. (Well, Gumby at least. Pokey stunk.)
|#2: GIANT NOVELTY SCISSORS
Giant plastic novelty scissors were more widely spread than you might think, for reasons I’ve yet to uncover. Can’t really dream up any good gag use for them, and it’s not like they were functioning scissors, which would’ve at least let you cut paper really fast.
|#3: DISEMBODIED ELECTRONIC HAND
The girls were fascinated by this hand (or hand + forearm, whatever), which was wired to move its fingers around like magic. Isn’t this the thing Garth hammered to death in Wayne’s World?
|#4: CHARMS & KEYCHAINS
They’re too small to individually ID, but it’s an assortment of those brightly colored keychains and charms that were all the rage in their day. They were the kinds of things casino arcades put in their junky five point prize bins, but frig me if they weren’t popular.
|#5: INFLATABLE POWER RANGER
Actually, it isn’t a Power Ranger, but rather a Japanese “Gaoranger” from one of the Super Sentai shows. Since the eldest Power Rangers shows aped footage from Super Sentai, I can’t rule out the possibility that this, technically, is an inflatable Red Ranger. Probably not, but it’s neat to think that the Red Ranger’s first appearance was alongside Natalie.
|#6: CHATTERING TEETH
Since there were a zillion versions of wind-up chattering teeth, let me clarify that these were the ones with feet. The ones without feet had more gag potential, but with feet, they became creatures from another dimension who just happened to look like our teeth. And that’s great.
|#7: NAKED BABY DOLLS
Zany! As I found out during my poser punk teen years, nude baby dolls also served a tremendous decorative purpose, especially when you wrote bad lyrics all over them.
|#8: THE RED THING
Ahhh, there she is. Sweetness. If I knew how to program X-E so that an ambient heavenly hum would blare through your speakers at this exact moment of the dissection, you’d so be hearing it now.
|#9: RUBBER SHARKS
Kids don’t carry large amounts of cash, and given the markups Mrs. Garrett must’ve been implementing to keep a place like this afloat, yeah, if I shopped at Over Our Heads, I’d have gone home with the rubber shark.
|#10: GUMBY, BUT SMALLER
Same Gumby as before, but smaller. This is the Gumby I had, and the Gumby many of you had. Think back to that Gumby. Wouldn’t he have been so much cooler four times bigger? So few things wouldn’t be, but I think it’s especially true of Gumby figures.
|#11: HIP CLOCKS
Notwithstanding the calm appeal of Clock #2, my eyes are drawn south, to the clock from an alternate reality ruled by six-year-old spacemen. I like how it keeps its clock parts small, as if it’s saying, “I’m so cool, I don’t even need to be a decent clock.”
|#12: WALL MASK FACE THINGS
Whether representing famous people or abstract women in half-masks, everyone had ceramic faces on their walls. It was the highest art $15 could buy, and eventually, they’d allow us to reenact the scene from Batman where Joker describes the fate of Alicia.
|#13: THE FISH PEN
It’s a fish-shaped pen, reminiscent in appearance of those “Fortune Teller Fish,” which flopped around in your hand to indicate whether you were in love or sweaty. Jo spent the entire episode marveling at this pen/fish, and doing absolutely nothing but that. Stupid Jo.
Over Our Heads also sold record albums – a grand total of two boxes worth. I’m guessing Oingo Boingo was in there, not due to the era, but because Mrs. Garrett made seventeen Oingo Bongo references in this episode alone.
|#15: INFLATABLE PALM TREE
This exact inflatable palm tree was everywhere in its day. My sister had it, and it’s way too distinct for me to be confusing it with another inflatable palm tree. Since nothing in Over Our Heads ever actually sold, this palm tree was featured in more episodes than are humanly countable. If fake trees could be sitcom mascots…
|#16: CANDY CANDY CANDY
The sales counter doubled as candy central, and while I can’t tell exactly what the candies were, I see no reason why they would’ve used phony prop candy instead of the real store-bought stuff. Pretty sure the yellow things are Mary Janes, and if that’s the kind of candy Over Our Heads sold, I’m glad this was fiction.
|#17: TACKY PENGUIN
Yes, that’s a young George Clooney holding it. Some people mention Roseanne when referencing “a young George Clooney,” but “an even younger George Clooney” was a part of The Facts of Life. Good thing, too. I really didn’t have much to say about the penguin. Just wish it was, you know, a duck.
Okay, so maybe Over Our Heads didn’t pack the same nostalgic “I HAD THAT” punch of my previous dissections, but this one was more about the spirit than its parts. With the possible exclusion of parodies, we’ll never see a store like this again. Not surprising, but still sad. Rubber sharks and inflatable trees have so rarely had the chance to call the same place home.
Miss you, red thing. Still want you.