Television Turmoil: Small Wonder

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the silver screen.

It has been said many times over, but the 80s truly were a wild time, especially for TV. Save for the 60s, there has never been an era so full of completely bonkers concepts that found success in spite of themselves. It is the perfect starting point for this series, and this week’s show is a prime example of both “worst” and “weirdest.”

Small Wonder follows V.I.C.I. (Voice Input Child Identicant) a robot girl created by Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) and sequestered in his home for reasons that are never fully explained. With the help of his family, Ted must keep V.I.C.I.’s true identity a secret from those who might use it against them or, you know, nosy neighbors.

Created by corny sitcom legend, Howard Leeds (co-creator of The Facts of Life and Silver Spoons) the show became a hit in first-run syndication. It also bares a striking resemblance to another program Leeds produced in the 60s, the creepily titled My Living Doll. That series focused on a robot in the form of an adult woman taken into the care of a military psychiatrist. Objectively, a worse idea than the one we get here, and that’s before we get into the part about the Fembot being trained to be “the perfect woman.”

The entire family unit

Aimed at children, Small Wonder mostly revolves around the Lawson’s obnoxious son, Jamie (Jerry Supiran) and his various attempts to have V.I.C.I. (or just Vicki when she is pretending to be a real girl) make his life easier. This ranges from having her do his chores to elaborate money-making schemes that usually backfire. In fact, most of the family uses Vicki for basic tasks around the house. Most notably, Ted’s wife Joan (a very underserved Marla Pennington) frequently uses Vicki to help with cooking. This sad existence is further exacerbated by the knowledge that Vicki is at least capable of cognitive thinking. Which makes her, at the very least, a sapient being.

These thoughts are perhaps too big for a show that appears to have the budget of a middle school production of Wizard of Oz. Truly, this is a program that doesn’t expect you to ask the big questions. Actually, it doesn’t expect you to ask any questions. For instance, why exactly does Ted wish to keep this stunning achievement a secret from the world? To hear him explain it in the pilot, his job passed on the project, so he took it home with him. The kind of answer that only works if you don’t think about it. This is all before we get into questions about how V.I.C.I. operates.

Like most 80s programs focused on the growing technology of the time, Small Wonder doesn’t care very much for how tech actually works. Throughout various moments in the series, Vicki can grow and shrink in size, float in the air for extended periods of time and in one peculiar instance, restart a person’s heart. Anything a coked out writer’s room can think up is on the table as far as her abilities go. So not only did Ted create artificial life, he created the world’s first superhero. Which makes his decision to hide his creation away even more troubling.

Still, this is technically a kid’s show, so maybe we should just take the premise at face value and try to enjoy what is being offered. Unfortunately, that doesn’t get you very far. Most of the jokes on the show revolve around Vicki repeating something someone else said in her monotone voice. This happens so often that I have to assume the writers just didn’t feel like writing new dialogue. Despite the fantastical concept, the show usually settles for stock sitcom tropes. There are a lot of stories about someone almost figuring out that Vicki is a robot. Because this is the 80s there are also a handful of inept “Very Special Episodes.” The most egregious being one about smoking that ends with Vicki trying a cigarette and smoke pouring out of her ears.

Many of the show’s biggest jokes revolve around the use of special effects to showcase Vicki’s abilities. This sounds like a good idea on paper, but part of the problem with being a syndicated show is running with a very small budget. This leads to the effects looking dire, even for the time. The show occasionally avoids this problem by using more practical effects, but with a staggeringly low budget of $300,000 per episode, even those aren’t very convincing. This also extends to the sets, which are crudely made and, in the case of schools or stores, unusually empty.

The best effects $20 and a hoagie can buy!

The closest thing to a positive the show has going for it is Tiffany Brissette as Vicki. A pageant girl who came close to nabbing the role of Punky Brewster, Brissette is clearly talented even when forced to show no emotion. The later seasons of the show would come up with various reasons to allow the young actor to show more range, from various malfunctions to an evil version of the robot named Vanessa that could somehow speak in a natural tone of voice. Brissette’s aging also forced the writers to come up with an explanation for this robot’s apparent growth spurt. Thankfully, the show didn’t last long enough for us to find out what rationale it would give for V.I.C.I. becoming a teenager.

Of course, no family sitcom is complete without an annoying neighbor character. Harriet Brindle (Emily Schulman) fills this role admirably by being both irritating and superfluous to the vast majority of the happenings in this show. Her equally grating parents also show up occasionally and, depending on the episode, are either very interested in Vicki or completely clueless about her true nature.

You can try to wave away most of these issues with a simple, “This is just a show for kids,” but we shouldn’t have to expect the bare minimum from something just because children are watching. We should expect more from programs aimed at an audience of developing minds. Of course, that was never in consideration with this program.

True to the era it was created in, Small Wonder is all about the bottom line. It was made to provide cheap content for local stations to play during non-prime time hours. The only thing asked of it was to make a modest return, and it accomplished that goal. The show ended up being syndicated internationally and found success overseas, which is more than I can say for many of the shows I’ll cover here. That success is likely the reason anyone even remembers this show and why it is often listed as one of the worst. That’s the problem sometimes with failing upward, it just puts more eyes on you.

Next week: We take a look at NBC’s expensive and short-lived Love Boat ripoff, Supertrain.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.