This intentionally feel-good show not only provided laughter, but also tackled social issues with 80s-style simplicity and humor. As you can read below, at least one reviewer was not impressed… and with the benefit of hindsight and an adult’s sensibilities, we can see his point, cantankerous as it is…
Nevertheless — and surely to the dismay of that intrepid critic — this extremely popular show was renewed for a total of 8 seasons.
With an ensemble cast led by the late Gary Coleman, and a catchy theme song that still lingers in our minds, Diff’rent Strokes continues to hold a special place in television history.
Gary Coleman stars as Arnold, a street-wise youth from Harlem, who is adopted by a white millionaire and becomes confused and suspicious about his sudden change of fortune on NBC-TV’s new  comedy series, “Diff’rent Strokes.”
Conrad Bain is the Park Avenue guardian to Arnold and Willis Jackson, two youngsters whose mother has just died. Charlotte Rae appears as Mrs Garrett, and Dana Plato portrays Kimberly Drummond.
Diff’rent Strokes theme song and opening credits
Diff’rent Strokes (Different Strokes) theme song lyrics
By Alan Thicke, Gloria Loring and Al Burton
Now, the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum
What might be right for you, may not be right for some
A man is born, he’s a man of means
Then along come two, they got nothing but their genes [jeans?]
But they got Diff’rent Strokes.
It takes Diff’rent Strokes
It takes Diff’rent Strokes to move the world
Everybody’s got a special kind of story;
Everybody finds a way to shine.
It don’t matter that you got not a lot
They’ll have theirs, you’ll have yours, and I’ll have mine
And together we’ll be fine
‘Cuz it takes Diff’rent Strokes to move the world
Yes it does
It takes Diff’rent Strokes to move the world
Diff’rent Strokes really ain’t so different (1978)
By David Handler in The Taylor Daily Press (Texas) December 28, 1978
“Diff’rent Strokes” is the only new show that NBC held onto in its recent Operation Clean Sweep, and I’m hard-pressed to figure out why. It’s a half-hour comedy dismally devoid of believability, character development and comedy. Perhaps its only redeeming social value is that it’s a show both blacks and whites can hate.
Drummond (Conrad Bain) is a blue blood with nothing but time and money on his hands. Out of the Ozzie Nelson-Fred MacMurray mold of sitcom fathers, he has no evident job or responsibilities, other than to putter around the house in a cozy cardigan sweater, searching for a chicken drumstick, and acting cheerfully befuddled at the zany tomfoolery of the younger generation.
The twist here is that Drummond’s kids are a pair of black ghetto youngsters; they were his maid’s children and he has adopted them. The idea is to watch them wander about in Drummond’s splendid townhouse, innocent of the ways of the white aristocracy. Drummond, in turn, is supposed to gain some street smarts.
Yes, you’re right — it is “The Beverly Hillbillies” in blackface. Instead of the Clampetts, we have Arnold (Gary Coleman), the resident half pint cutie, who sounds like he’s been doing a lounge act in Vegas for the past 25 years.
Older brother Willis (Todd Bridges) must swallow any personality he might have to serve as Arnold’s straight man. He has no other reason for existing. Nor does Drummond.
The dialogue is straight set-up and punchline. Arnold steps constantly out of character to deliver the blows. “Why are you reading a ‘Superman’ comic?” asks Drummond. “Because I’m too young to appreciate ‘Wonder Woman‘,” responds Arnold, who is also too young to make that remark.
“Am I interrupting something, boys?” asks Drummond when he comes in on Arnold and Willis locked in heated debate. “No,” snaps Arnold. “We’re just sitting here resisting temptation.”
For stories, “Diff’rent Strokes” leans to fresh fare, like Arnold hiding under the kitchen sink to avoid a spanking. Everyone thinks he’s run away. Panic ensues. The police are called.
They did that one on “Father Knows Best” in 1957, except Bud hid in the cellar because he had just experienced a growth spurt and was too big to fit under the sink.
One of the episodes I saw actually sought to score a serious point. Drummond tries to get the boys into his old prep school, only to discover that the entrance exams are discriminatory.
However, he reaches this insight while dressed in his old prep school uniform, complete with beanie cap. Anything for a bad gag — it’s the sort of lack of creative discipline that sank Jerry Lewis’ last 10 movies.
For subsidiary characters, “Diff’rent Strokes” features a cook with a fondness for sherry, and Drummond’s Typical Teenage Daughter, Kimberly, who bears as much resemblance to your basic teenager as Arnold does to Mamie Eisenhower.
I would shrug this show off if it weren’t the only one the network considered “hot” enough to keep on the air. If “Dif rent Strokes” is any indication of the programming to come in January and February — and we have no alternative but to take it that way — then we’re all in for a long, cold winter.
WATCH IT AGAIN: Get the series on DVD here
Diff’rent Strokes cast
Conrad Bain as Phillip Drummond
Gary Coleman as Arnold Jackson
Todd Bridges as Willis Jackson
Dana Plato as Kimberly Drummond (1978–84, 1985–86 recurring)
Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett (1978–79)
Nedra Volz as Adelaide Brubaker (1980–84)
Janet Jackson as Charlene DuPrey (1980–84 recurring)
Dody Goodman as Sophia Drummond (1981–84 recurring)
Shavar Ross as Dudley Johnson (1980–86 recurring)
Le Tari as Ted Ramsey (1980–84 recurring)