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April Fools Week: The Artificial (Un)Intelligence of Small Wonder

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageIf you’re like me, then you have fond memories for Small Wonder, the mid-80s sitcom about a suburban family living with an android that looks like a little girl. And if that last statement DID resonate for you, then we have a few more things in common as well:

1.       You were NO OLDER than twelve years old when this show was on the air.

2.       During that time, you were something of a fucking idiot.

Believe it or not, but Small Wonder was something of a success story when it first hit the airwaves, as it was the very first non-network (non-game) syndicated show ever made. The creators wanted to buck the trend of high-priced and overly formulaic sitcoms, and decided to produce a cutting edge concept on a smaller budget, to see if they could change the model for how shows got made. And it worked; there were a staggering 96 episodes made, and while you might have had a hard time following them around the channels and airtimes, they all made their way to television. The only real question is…HOW?

After having suffered through the first four episodes (some asshole released the entire first season on DVD), I have to assure you that any soft spot you may have for this show is due to nostalgia born of childhood idiocy. Small Wonder, as it turns out, just might be the worst fucking show ever produced.

There are in fact so many things that make this show terrible, there’s no way to narrow them down to just one. So instead, here is a small (but by no means comprehensive) list of everything that sucks about Small Wonder:

The Premise – A guy named Lawson who works for a robotics company successfully designs a robot that can “learn” through observation and looks and “feels” just like a little girl…yet his company is not interested in the idea. (So to be clear…the ROBOTICS company is not interested in a ROBOT that passes perfectly for a human being. Makes sense so far.) So he assembles a prototype in his home, dresses it like a cast member of Little House on the Prairie, and then insists that his wife and ten-year-old son tell no one that it’s a machine (because if you were in the field of robotics, and then successfully created the most life-like gynoid [look it up] the world has ever seen, you too would logically decide to keep that decision to yourself for all time). The hijinks ensue when one of the family members “programs” this robot to do something (“programming” in this case being interchangeable with “telling”) and she misunderstands hilariously. God, is there ANYTHING in the above paragraph that isn’t simply awful?

 

The Theme Song – Easily the most irritating and cloying intro to a show in the last thirty years. I listened to it four times for the purposes of this assignment, and it has been running through my head so much I am tempted to get it out with an icepick. Listen to it once if you’re a masochist; listen to it twice because I dare you to:

 

The Writing – Each of the first four episodes I watched clocked in at just over twenty-two minutes, which means that taking them in took less time than all but the shortest of feature-length movies. And yet, the half-assed plots and cringe-worthy “jokes” made it feel as though it was a full-day assignment. Let’s review:

1.   1. Vicki’s Homecoming  -The pilot episode, with most of the same plot elements described in the premise. After the “rules” of the show are established, the robot (Vicki, named for an acronym too stupid to repeat) is given to the son Jamie to…play with, I guess. On the morning of his parents anniversary, Jamie makes them breakfast in bed, and tells Vicki to deliver it to them. She does, but then DROPS THE TRAY AND SPILLS THE FOOD ON THEM!!! The parents get mad at Jamie, so he goes to the store to buy them a present. Vicki follows him (never made clear how she does this), and goes over to the circus display in the corner of the store (?). This display is being broken down that day, and when the store employees go over to do so, one picks up the animatronic clown, the other PICKS UP VICKI, and locks her in a closet! Luckily, she is super strong, so she knocks down the door and they escape. HA!

 

2.    2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – When the power goes out next door, The Lawsons’ neighbors come over, including young Harriet (who spies on Jamie, and has a crush on him), her mom (who would soon after move next door to The Hogan Family), and her dad (who is apparently Mr. Lawson’s boss, and from whom Vicki’s secret must be kept the most vociferously…because otherwise it’d be bad. The neighbors invite themselves over for dinner that night, and they arrive with the dad’s newest invention…a robot with a magnet for a hand! The Lawson’s try to hide Vicki, but Harriet discovers her, and she joins the others for the gathering. While there, she inadvertently blurts out the horrible things that her family said about the neighbors, and she goes crazy when she shakes the other robot’s hand (due to the magnet!) HA HA!!

 

3.   3.  Robositter – Mr. Lawson has to go to some fancy dinner with his wife, and the babysitter cancels at the last minute! Jamie wants to stay by himself, but his parents are hesitant (with good cause, we’ll soon learn!!!). Mr. Lawson programs Vicki with commands befitting a babysitter (“Don’t open the door for anyone, for any reason” and “Jamie must go to bed at nine o’clock” being the two most important ones) and pretends that they have not done so, thus giving their son the illusion of parental trust. Throughout the evening, Jamie has Vicki do his homework for him, and has her drink some of his milkshake, thus “getting her circuits wet” and causing her to talk funny. Then, when his parents come home and realize they don’t have the house key, Vicki won’t let them in, due to the orders she was given!! HA HA HA!!!

 

4.   4. Nerd Crush – When hopeless nerd Warren comes over to give Jamie his baseball glove back, he sees and falls immediately in love with Vicki. When this confuses her, Jamie teaches her the basics of love, including how to kiss and bat eyelashes. When Warren returns to woo her, Vicki repeats her lessons too well, and convinces Warren that she loves him too! Check it out!

 

 

In an effort to fix the situation, Jamie programs Vicki to be very mean to Warren, which makes him cry. Just as all hope is lost, who should come to the door but annoying Harriet, who falls for Warren herself!! HA HA HA HA!!!!

Let me assure you: if these premises sound lame on paper, imagine them stretched out across the duration of an entire episode. It’s enough to make you set your eyes on fire.

The Special Effects – The creators of this show seem very proud of themselves at how they handled Vicki, creating a tech manual to determine exactly how she worked (for continuity’s sake). Too bad they couldn’t have turned all of that theoretical proficiency into something resembling even basic television production competency. All of Vicki’s feats of super humanity were either extraordinarily lame sight gags (Vicki holds up an empty water bottle that is supposedly full, and when she drops it, we see a close up shot of a FULL water bottle hitting the floor) or footage lamely sped up for effect. (Watch as Vicki sets the table at normal speed, sped up to double speed!) They REALLY had to beef up the laugh track during these shots in order to make it seem entertaining.

The Undertone – This is the most insidious part of Small Wonder, and the hardest to define. To put it bluntly, there is something very disturbing about this show that goes far beyond its shittiness. When I finally figured out what it was, I was so horrified that I decided to call up the creator of the show and let him have it. However, it turns out that the creator of Small Wonder is actually something of Hollywood royalty, if you bestow monarchy on guys who created lots of very successful yet undeniably awful sitcoms throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. (Brady Bunch, Diff’rent Strokes, and The Facts of Life to name a few). Thus, not only would calling him serve little purpose (as this show was just a small blip on his radar), but doing so might put me on HIS radar, and cause him to hire some lackey to have me killed (which is why I’m not using his name. If he can’t Google this article, he can’t find it, right? RIGHT?) . So I conducted this fake interview with him instead.

Rob Van Winkle: So, how did you come up with the idea for Small Wonder?

Creator of Small Wonder: Well, Rob…can I call you Rob?

RvW: No.

CoSW: Sorry. Well, Mr. Van Winkle, I saw how my kids at the time were becoming more and more obsessed with their computers, and I saw that this new generation was going to become more technically savvy than we could ever imagine. From there, it was a small leap to Vicki and Small Wonder!

RvW: I see. Did I just make that answer up, or did I read something like that in some article that was written on some fansite for Small Wonder?

CoSW: The latter.

RvW: Interesting. So when did you know that you were a…hmm, I can’t seem to read the word I wrote down here. I think it says…success?

CoSW: Well, once The Brady Bunch got picked up for season two…

RvW: No. it was “Pedophile.”

CoSW: I was pretty sure I was going to make it in…excuse me?

RvW: You heard me. Pervert.

CoSW: I think you misunderstand. I…

RvW: Don’t play coy with me, reprobate! I’ll overlook the vaguely creepy undertone that always seems to seep into your shows, not to mention the recurring theme of the aging adult who befriends the precocious youngster  – Paging Dr. Freud! – but Small Wonder pretty much lays your kink out bare, doesn’t it?

CoSW: I…I don’t know what you mean. This is absurd!

RvW: Okay, let me lay it out for you. A robotics professor invents the means to create a completely lifelike humanoid, and designs it as a TEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL with “completely lifelike skin” who will do anything and everything you tell her to do. Sound familiar?

CoSW: Yes, but…

RvW: He dresses her for no apparent reason like some coquette from the middle of the twentieth century. Right…around…when you started to get boners, wouldn’t you say?

CoSW: Now just a…

RvW: She is then given to the man’s adolescent boy to “play with,” and he keeps her in a box in his bedroom.

CoSW: I considered that! We decided…

RvW: SHUT UP! And if that wasn’t enough, the show seemed to relish putting Vicki in vaguely sexual situations, or giving her lines peppered with double entendres!

CoSW: Buh…Fla…Guh…

RvW: Think I’m making it up? Then why did you put in that horribly awkward scene where Vicki kisses that boy in the clip from above? Does it seem natural to you to have even NORMAL boys and girls talking that way to one another at that age? Or how about in the second episode, with that magnet hand robot? Vicki starts freaking out, and the dad says that the magnet accidentally “turned her on.” The show then fucking CLOSES on Vicki saying that she liked that robot because “he turned me on.” Did you get off on that, Creator of Small Wonder? DID YOU?

CoSW: (silence)

RvW: I see. So my last question I think is obvious: are you obsessed with wanting to have sex with kids, or robots?

CoSW: (pause) yes.

RvW: I thought so.

End Fake Transcript

In summary, Small Wonder is train wreck TV of the highest magnitude. And as we have learned, if you liked watching it, you were a stupid kid who didn’t know any better. And if you created it…well then you’re probably just a simple pervert.

Author: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

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