Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 15, 2010)
In the annals of television, many programs vie for the title of Worst Series Ever. Manimal? My Mother the Car? Pink Lady and Jeff?
Pretenders! Some will argue, but I think the award should probably go to Small Wonder, a 1980s series much better known as a notable atrocity than anything else. I’m not sure the most brilliant comedic minds in history could’ve made anything good out of a series about a robotic little girl, but Wonder definitely didn’t boast any creative geniuses behind it.
Long desired by connoisseurs of bad TV, the first season of Small Wonder finally comes to DVD. (No Blu-ray???). This package features all 24 episodes, and it presents them in broadcast order. The episode synopses come straight from the DVD’s packaging.
Vicki’s Homecoming: “Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) introduces his family to VICI (Tiffany Brissette), or the voice Input Child Identicant: a secretly constructed robotic domestic aide in the form of a 10-year-old girl.”
The Neighbors: “The Brindles, the Lawsons’ snoopy neighbors, suspect the Lawsons are hiding something and attempt to sniff out their family secret. Harriet (Emily Schulman) shows off her toy robot.”
The Sitter: “When the Lawsons’ babysitter cancels, Ted sees an opportunity for a new function for Vicki.”
The Suitor: “The school nerd, Warren (Daryl Bartley), falls in love with the only girl who doesn’t slam the door in his face: Vicki.”
Sibling Rivalry: “Jamie (Jerry Supiran) decides to run away when he feels that his parents attend to Vicki more than him.”
Spielberg Jr.: “When Jamie and his best friend Reggie (Paul C. Scott) put together a sci-fi movie project for school, the directorial power goes to Jamie’s head.”
The Lie: “Jamie learns the value of consistent honesty when he can’t convince his parents that he’s not responsible for breaking a teapot.”
The Bully: “When a bully begins extorting money from Jamie and his friends, Ted attempts to teach Jamie how to fight.”
Slightly Dishonorable: “Jamie uses Vicki to do his homework and gets on the school honor roll.”
The Adoption: “After Bonnie Brindle (Edie McClurg) tips off Child Services about the Lawsons’ new child, Vicki must pass a medical exam.”
Child Genius: “With Child Services watching, the Lawsons must hire a tutor for Vicki, and Joan (Marla Pennington-Rowan) resolves to complete her teaching degree.”
Ted’s New Boss: “Following a house fire, the Brindles muscle their way into staying with the Lawsons.”
Brainwashed: “When Vicki begins to mimic Harriet, Ted decides to reprogram her.”
The Burrito Story: “Jamie attempts to mass-produce burritos made by Vicki.”
The Camping Trip: “The Lawsons and Reggie and Harriet take a wilderness camping trip and get lost.”
Love Story: “Jamie throws a lavish party to impress his first crush.”
Substitute Father: “Brandon Brindle (William Bogert) begins a father war when he finds that a golf-crazed Ted has been neglecting Jamie.”
The Robot Nappers: “A rival robotics firm suspects that Vicki is a robot and plans to steal her.”
The Company Takeover: “Cutbacks at United Robotronics have the Lawsons scrambling for odd jobs.”
Good Ol’ Lou: “Ted is motivated to get the family into shape when an obese coworker loses a record amount of weight.”
Like Father, Like Son: “Jamie tries out for the Pee Wee football team.”
Vaudeville Vicki: “A vaudeville actor becomes convinced Vicki is his long-lost daughter.”
The Real Facts of Life: “Jamie attempts to educate his dad in the ways of love.”
The Grandparents: “Ted must break it to his father that Vicki is a robot.”
Usually when I review TV series on DVD, I offer my thoughts about each specific episode. In this case, I simply couldn’t do it. What would I say for each program: “Yikes!” “Double yikes!” “Kill me now!”
In the face of nine hours of Small Wonder, there’s only so much shock one can manifest. Actually, ennui does set in after a while. The series starts with jaw-dropping awfulness and never improves from there. This means that the impact of the cheesiness starts to wear off before too long. Intellectually, I know it’s scary bad, but it becomes more difficult to feel stunned by the many lows on display. Call if a form of Sitcom Stockholm Syndrome.
Essentially, if you've seen one episode of Wonder, you’ve seen them all. There’s exceptionally little to differentiate one program from another. Sure, they feature different plots, but those storylines are essentially irrelevant. The human characters never develop or change, and the scenarios remain very similar.
So much redundant material appears that the writers should’ve only been paid for 60 percent of each episode. In particular, they love to simply have Vicki parrot the remarks of others, usually in a slightly inappropriate manner. This technique is never funny, and it gets more and more tedious as the season progresses. It’s so predictable that it becomes an annoying device just to fill time.
Other jokes repeat ad infinitum. The vast majority of the humor depends on Vicki’s “fish out of water” status; the Lawsons have to deal with her inability to understand standard human behaviors. A few other trends develop, such as Jamie’s egotism, but Vicki remains the series’ drawing card, pathetic as it may be; the robot’s the gimmick, and the show tries to milk that mechanical cow for all its worth.
In addition to the relentlessly braindead writing, most of the actors ensure that the gags will become even more grating. Almost across the board, the performers overact and oversell each line and gag. No one expects natural acting and great delivery from 80s sitcom participants, but the awful work on display here still astounds.
One modest exception occurs: Brissette. At no point does she entertain or make us laugh, but at least she usually doesn’t overact. While I wouldn’t say she underplays Vicki, she does manage to remain in character surprisingly well.
Yeah, Brissette’s performance doesn’t really rise above the level of any kid who plays robot with friends. Nonetheless, given the insane level of hamminess around her, I would expect Brissette to figuratively wink at the audience and oversell the role. Again, I don’t find anything delightful about Brissette’s work, but she’s the best thing about the series. She stays in character and shows decent skills.
If that’s not faint praise, I don’t know what is. Small Wonder long ago earned a reputation as a legendary sitcom atrocity, and nothing on display in this package alters that concept. This is a feast for fans of bad TV.