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Friday, November 04, 2011

TGIF: Small Wonder

Typically speaking, I tend to be somewhat easily pleased when it comes to television sitcoms. As long as there's at least one funny joke, or a kitschy gag, I'm good to go.

Certainly there are some sitcoms that I find a little less stellar than others. I know everyone that I knew was really into Seinfeld, and watched it every day, but for whatever reason, it wasn't a program that I could get into. I get that the running gag of the show was the fact that the show was all about nothing, and granted, a couple of episodes I found funny (like the one about the Soup Nazi), but other than that, I never could get into it.

Another sitcom that I never watched that much was Murphy Brown. It was a show that was critically acclaimed, and won dozens of awards, but I think the problem with that show was that I was simply too young to appreciate it when it was fresh and current. That's not to say that I thought it was a bad show. I just didn't understand it as well as people who were old enough to understand all of the jokes and punchlines.

Can I share a bit of a confession with all of you? Just a teeny weeny confession?  Part of the reason why I love doing this blog is talking about some of those obscure sitcoms that most never watched because they aired at odd times in syndication, or because they never got properly promoted, or just simply because they were terrible!

And you know what? Most of the sitcoms that were deemed the worst of the worst, I ended up watching as a young boy. And as a young boy, I just didn't understand television ratings or anything like that. I was entertained by anything that broadcast on television back then. Heck, I probably even watched the weather channel at some point.

So, for today's blog entry, I thought we'd take a trip back to the year 1985. That was the year that a sitcom debuted in first-run syndication for four years. A sitcom that many critics and viewers declared to be one of the worst sitcoms ever made.

The show had a very low budget, and the plot line for the series was something out of a badly written science fiction book. Though, I'm willing to point out a few positives in a show that otherwise reeked of cheapness, bad writing, and every possible cliché ever existing in a television show.

When Small Wonder premiered on September 7, 1985, you have to admit that the idea for the show was rather unique. The sitcom revolved around the Lawson family. Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) is a robotics engineer working at a company called United Robotics. His latest project involves working on a prototype for a robot that was specifically designed to assist children who are handicapped.

The project that he came up with was one that had the code name of V.I.C.I., which was an acronym for Voice Input Child Identicant. The project was an android that took on the appearance of a ten-year-old girl, and was given the name Vicki, after the name of the project itself. Vicki was played by ten-year-old actress Tiffany Brissette.

Vicki is designed to resemble an average child, but is really anything but. She was programmed with superhuman speed and strength, an AC outlet underneath her right arm, a serial port after her left arm, and an access panel in her back. The downside to Vicki is that she is unable to process human emotion, and speaks in a monotone voice. She also doesn't understand sarcasm and humour, which can lead to some mistranslations and misunderstandings. Case in point, in one episode, when she overhears Ted making an off the cuff remark about being 'dead meat', Vicki happens to misunderstand this and starts telling people that Ted really did die, which leads to a fake funeral. you know why some people deemed this show to be a major cheese fest.

Anyway, Ted's prototype of Vicki looked incredibly realistic, even using real hair and realistic skin to design her. But Ted knew that in order to help his creation grow and develop that he needed to place her in a real stable (well, as stable as you could get given the show's nature anyway) family environment.

So he decides to bring Vicki home, and have her mingle with the rest of his family, including his wife Joan (Marla Pennington), and his twelve-year-old son, Jamie (Jerry Supiran).

The way that the family tried to account for Vicki's appearance at the Lawson household to strangers and neighbours was that she was their adopted daughter. And for the most part, the family kept up the charade as best they could. Ted continued to make improvements on Vicki, including redesigning her so that she could age naturally, being able to eat and drink just like a real human being, and allowing her to wear normal clothes, finally ditching the red and white dress that she wore right up until the beginning of the show's third season. Joan was very loving and devoted to Vicki and often doted on her the same way a mother would treat her own daughter. As for Jamie, he got along with Vicki as well, though sometimes he and Vicki didn't see eye to eye. Vicki and Jamie ended up sharing a bedroom, with Vicki sleeping inside a full-length cabinet located near Jamie's bed.

Vicki also possessed a capability to learn new things at a speedy and powerful pace, which lead to Vicki coming up with new discoveries such as inventing a new laundry detergent, or increasing the gas mileage on a car. Naturally Ted and Jamie tried to capitalize on Vicki's discoveries as a way to make a boatload of cash, but in almost every episode, they would often find out the hard way that the improvements that Vicki made on the products were not perfect, and ended badly a lot of the time.

Of course, the Lawson family really had to work together to try and keep Vicki's real identity a secret, which was not easy. Especially when you had neighbours like the Brindles who kept sticking their noses in where they didn't belong. Brandon Brindle (William Bogert) was one of Ted's co-workers who later became his boss, and he and his wife, Bonnie (Edie McClurg, who left after season two to star in Valerie) kept dropping by the house unannounced, often at the most inopportune moments. Their daughter Harriet (Emily Schulman), was just as nosy as her parents, but her motivation was her long standing crush on Jamie Lawson.

Now, Small Wonder was declared to be a mess of a sitcom. Despite the fact that the show managed to run until May 20, 1989, and despite the fact that actress Emily Schulman won back to back Young Artist Awards in 1986 and 1987 for her role in the show, Small Wonder was critically savaged. In 2002, Robert Bianco, a critic for USA Today listed it as a contender for the worst program of all opinion shared by many people years after the fact.

Yet, for some reason, people all over the world are still fascinated by this show.  As low-budget and cheesy as it was, you have to admit that it was somewhat memorable...maybe for all the wrong reasons, but memorable.

I can recall being a member of a webpage forum for all things nostalgia about ten years ago, and one of the most frequent questions on the Lost and Found sub-board asked by new members was if anyone remembered watching a show with a little robot girl who lived in a cabinet in a boy's room. The fact that so many people asked about Small Wonder at any given time just showed that while it may not have been good, it did leave an impression.

I suppose in some aspect, that's good.

I remember watching Small Wonder when I was a little kid, and of course watching it through adult eyes, I do agree that it has not aged well at all. But as a kid, I loved it. It was something new, and it was something that had not really been seen before. Back in 1985, robots were very big in pop culture, and it seemed that everyone was talking about robots. So, at least in that sense, the sitcom tried its best to create a relevant sitcom based on what was popular at the time. May not have been executed as well as they wanted, but they did try.

And the show didn't exactly make any of the actors and actresses huge name stars or anything, but it was Tiffany Brissette's first big break, and landed her other jobs all throughout the 1980s, including a couple of stints on The Adventures Of Teddy Ruxpin cartoon and a guest appearance on the television sitcom 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose'. Tiffany stopped acting in 1992, but made an appearance on the January 14, 2009 broadcast of 'The Morning Show With Mike And Juliet', where she was reunited with her co-stars Dick Christie, Marla Pennington, and Edie McClurg. She's currently studying to become a nurse nowadays, but still had fond memories of working on the sitcom.

I think that the show was one that most people didn't understand, or didn't like even. But, I wouldn't say that it was the worst sitcom ever. I mean, it lasted a lot longer than some other sitcoms out there. Most sitcoms would kill for a four season run these days.

Small Wonder may have been a big gamble that didn't get executed very well...but at the same time, there just may have been a few small wonders that could be found.

Just like small wonders can be found in almost everything.

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