Case Number 18244

SMALL WONDER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON

Shout! Factory // 1985 // 540 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // February 3rd, 2010

The Charge

She's fantastic -- made of plastic.

Opening Statement

The worst sitcom of all time?

Facts of the Case

The Lawson family has a new addition, cute little Vicki (Tiffany Brissette). Although the Lawsons claim she's a visiting cousin, Vicki is actually VICI, a Voice Input Child Identicant. Call her a robot, call her an android, just don't call her late for an oil change.

Father Ted (Dick Christie) created Vicki as a kind of domestic servant, but she still has a few bugs. When she's not taking literally things like requests to "give me a hand," she's a great help to Ted's perky stay-at-home wife, Joan (Marla Pennington, Soap). Joan takes to Vicki like a real child, even though the Lawsons have a flesh-and-blood son, Jamie (Jerry Supiran, Policewoman Centerfold).

Since Vicki is not yet perfected, her robot identity must be kept secret -- particularly from the prying eyes of annoying neighbor child Harriet Brindle (Emily Schulman). Harriet's father (William Bogert, The Greatest American Hero) is Ted's incompetent boss, and her mother (Edie McClurg, The Master of Disguise) is a chipper harridan.

The Evidence

The worst sitcom of all time?

One of the best episodes of Newhart centered on the production of a horrible sitcom called "Seein' Double." With a cheesy premise, dreadful and obvious writing, terrible acting, and a wealth of annoyingly colorful characters, it was a dead-on and wildly funny re-creation of everything that makes a bad sitcom bad.

There is not a doubt in my mind that the folks at Newhart prepared for this by studying episodes of Small Wonder.

Small Wonder has been cited by some as the worst sitcom of all time, or at least one of the worst. While I don't know that it's necessarily deserving of the crown, this show almost seems determined to consistently top its own awfulness. It drives spikes through all the worn-out sitcom conventions and adds one of the more stupefying twists in sitcom history.

The idea of creating a robot servant might work as a subplot in a sitcom, but making her an indentured servant little girl is just creepy. Tricked out in a pinafore that the orphaned Jane Eyre would have rejected, Vicki is programmed to do just about anything that's asked of her to make life easier for humans. She's cute, she's clever, she's the deus ex machina almost every week, and if she gets out of line, Ted just disassembles her and starts over. It's like The Stepford Wives for preschoolers.

The Lawsons are a Reagan-era fantasy family -- blandly good-looking and doughy Dad, who's the breadwinner; thin, blonde, stay-at-home Mom; and 1.5 children. The jokes, unfortunately, are less Reagan era than Eisenhower era, except for some squeamish sex banter -- Mom and Dad evidently still have a healthy heave-ho life. Actually, most of these jokes were creaky when Eisenhower was in short pants:

Ted: I looked in the mirror today. I've really let myself go!
Vicki: I have a so-lu-tion. Get a new mirror.

Every show opens with the chillingly saccharine "Small Wonder Theme Song," which makes the theme song from Full House sound like a thrash classic. Featuring a chorus chanting "La La La" about 17 times, this "Please, Mr. Dentist, drill louder" ditty assures us that Vicki, with her "microchips here and there" brings "love and laughter everywhere." The gunslinging robots in Westworld were more loving and laugh-inducing than this bizarre, blank-faced creation.

Each episode comes in one of two flavors: Vicki heavy or Vicki light. The Vicki-heavy shows revolve Vicki's robotism -- either keeping her true identity a secret, discovering new things she can do, or coping with a malfunction or something unexpected. In one, Bonnie Brindle calls child welfare authorities because she notices Vicki's not going to school; the Lawsons end up having to adopt the 'droid and fake their way through a physical with a pediatrician. In another, Ted's father is devastated to learn that his "new granddaughter" is nothing more than an appliance -- it takes a hastily dredged up health crisis to jumpstart the old man's heart. The Vicki-light episodes follow the tired path of all family sitcoms, with stories about Jamie's first crush and Ted's job woes. Vicki's function in these is usually reduced to a few one-liners and a dreadful special effect -- lifting a car over her head or distorting her body in some grotesque and atrociously rendered way that generally brings applause from the studio audience.

As far as the acting goes...well, the farther away it goes, the better. In truth, young Jerry Supiran is not the worst child actor I've ever seen -- that distinction would go to his co-star Emily Schulman as the annoying neighborhood brat, Harriet. As the titular wonder, Tiffany Brissette speaks in a monotone and struggles not to blink. Sometimes, she's called upon to imitate a "real" person or do an impression of someone like Groucho Marx; thus, she gets to show range.

The three kids are like the Barrymores compared to the adult actors. Christie delivers every hackneyed line with the enthusiasm of a used-car salesman. Pennington does little other than recite the other characters' names as reactions to the jokes -- "Oh, Ted!" or "Oh, Jamie!" or "Oh, Vicki!" She does hold the distinction of being the most ludicrously attired "normal" character of the decade. Her get-ups include a giant-collared shocking pink pantsuit that looks like The Road Warrior at a drag ball and several dresses that could pass as psychosis-inducing screen savers. As the Brindles, Bogert and McClurg are the worst type of clueless, over-the-top sitcom second bananas, and McClurg even gets her own catch phrase -- "No no-no-no no no" -- which assaults the auditory senses like an earwig chomping its way to the center of your brain.

Small Wonder: The Complete First Season offers up the initial 24 episodes that aired beginning in September 1985. The shows are spread across four discs housed in a pair of slimline cases. The episodes look pretty ho-hum, but I didn't notice any major defects, and the audio track is fine. For extras, we get commentaries on a number of episodes with Christie, Pennington, Supiran, McClurg, former child actor Daryl Bartley (who played a boy with a crush on Vicki), and creator Howard Leeds. These are actually quite warm and charming, though it's disconcerting to hear words like "brilliant" and "great" used as descriptors. We also get promos for each episode and a gallery of fan art that would be right at home in a horror exhibit.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The worst sitcom of all time?

While nine hours of this is enough to make anyone jaded, Small Wonder certainly has kitsch value. If you poke around the Internet, you'll find that this show has a surprisingly healthy fan base, even beyond the so-bad-it's-good bunch. Maybe there are intrinsic values I'm missing here? Probably not, but to each his own.

Closing Statement

The worst sitcom of all time?

Nah.

It's bad enough, but I don't know that it would qualify as the worst ever. Even Shout! Factory makes a case against that absolutiveness by including previews for two other wretched relics from the '80s -- the hilarious and touching abandoned-by-her-mother kidcom, Punky Brewster, and the hilarious and touching consequence-of-group-sexcom, My Two Dads, starring Paul "Mad About You" Reiser. But even if Reiser -- or McLean Stevenson or Suzanne Somers or Scott Baio -- had never toplined dreadfully unfunny TV shows, Small Wonder still predated the laugh-track-challenged horrors of the CW, so "worst of all time" might be a stretch.

But with its insipid, unsettling premise, predictable jokes, standard performances, DIY special effects, and tinkly music, Small Wonder has certainly earned its place in the "bad" pantheon.

The Verdict

It might not be the worst sitcom of all time, but it's definitely a high-concept horrorshow.

Guilty.

Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC

Scales of Justice
Video: 75
Audio: 75
Extras: 80
Acting: 45
Story: 35
Judgment: 35

Perp Profile
Studio: Shout! Factory
Video Formats:
* Full Frame

Audio Formats:
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)

Subtitles:
* English
* Spanish

Running Time: 540 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks
* Episode Commentaries
* Promos
* Fan Art Gallery

Accomplices
* IMDb
http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0088610/combined