“Small Wonder: Chewed Out” (1986)

The internet loves a good fan theory, especially when it’s connected to science fiction. Because it’s science fiction, any cockamamie scenario is possible, and it only takes a small amount of mental pretzeling to apply it. Thanks to its multiple ambiguous endings, a particularly popular movie for fan theorizing is Blade Runner. Deckard is a replicant! Deckard isn’t a replicant! Deckard has Gaff’s memories! It’s all a fantasy! It exists in the same universe as the Alien movies! It’s all inside the mind of an autistic child!

Even I have my own theory: in an earlier script for Blade Runner, it’s mentioned that five Replicants escaped to Earth from the Off-World Colonies–Roy, Pris, Zhora, Leon, and a third female whose fate was unknown. A later version of the script identified her as “Mary,” a Replicant designed largely for housework duties. Though a small amount of test footage was filmed using Mary, she was eventually dropped from the final script altogether. However, consider the idea that Mary fled the city, where she was found by an engineer/inventor who wipes her memories and resets her programming, so that she has to learn how to act like a human again. Then he changes her name and takes her home to his family, where she is treated alternately like a daughter and a servant, while her true identity is kept a secret from the outside world.

Now, that may sound ridiculous, but is it really any more so than the plot of Small Wonder, in which a man invents a child robot that can be taught to act, think, and feel like a human, then goes to extreme lengths to keep this astonishing advancement in artificial intelligence a secret, for no discernible reason?

Small Wonder is the rare TV show that implausibly became a minor hit, while being fondly remembered by exactly zero people (if you do meet anyone who claims they genuinely liked it, they too might be a robot, and you should proceed with caution). Having since watched the aforementioned Blade Runner, Westworld, Ex Machina, and other movies/TV shows that explore the moral implications of humans interacting with human-like androids, what used to be merely a lousy sitcom on a third-tier network, a strange blip in 80s pop culture at the most, is now a blood curdling experience to revisit.

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Tiffany Brissette plays Vicki, the small wonder in question, and the creation of Ted Lawson (Dick Gautier), who would have to be a science and engineering genius, but still comes off mostly as a typical numbskull sitcom dad. The rest of the Lawson Family includes Ted’s wife, Joan (Marla Pennington), and preteen son Jamie (Jerry Supiran), who gets at least as much screen time as Vicki, and is at least half as charming. Though Vicki is ostensibly designed for housework, she possesses superhuman strength, and can do things like make her head spin around. She even occasionally exhibits some X-Men like abilities, such as being able to shrink and grow, and generate enough electricity to restart someone’s heart. If you expect consistency on what Vicki can or can’t do, prepare to be disappointed, as it changes from one episode to the next, depending on what the plot demands, and what interminable moneymaking scheme Jamie comes up with.

Much of the “humor” in Small Wonder comes from Vicki’s blank countenance and flat, affectless voice, which she uses mostly to repeat whatever she hears, usually at “hilariously” inappropriate times. If that’s not enough to all but shatter your funny bone, she also takes everything that’s said to her literally, such as responding to an order to “knock it off” by raising her fist in a threatening manner. Now, you’d think that, given that Vicki exhibits superhuman strength, yet doesn’t understand simple commands like “throw the water out,” perhaps Ted would have done a little more fine tuning in the lab, if for no other reason than so she doesn’t accidentally kill someone. But no, that kitchen floor isn’t gonna mop itself, so young Vicki is stuck cleaning up after an incompetent boob of a father figure, a mother who treats her presence with annoyance and barely concealed distaste, and an irritating brother who views her incredible abilities as little more than a way to make a quick buck or two.

The show immediately poses far more questions than it ever attempts to answer. Why, if Vicki was designed to act as domestic help, does she look like a child? Why is she dressed in a Shirley Temple style party dress, complete with pinafore and knee socks, and why does it take three seasons before the poor thing gets a change of clothing? Why does the family treat having a robot child, an invention that could make them billionaires, with the kind of embarrassed secrecy one would treat an illegitimate teenage pregnancy? Why does her inventor seem surprised and perplexed whenever Vicki does something that he himself must have programmed her to do?

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Though the plots of Small Wonder grew increasingly asinine over four seasons, involving hypnosis, ghosts, fake earthquakes, rogue computer programs, evil twin robots, and a guest appearance by Jesse “the Body” Ventura, they still resorted to the occasional Very Special Episode, in which Vicki learns about homelessness, missing children, and, of course, the dangers of drugs (although, when you think about it, what does a robot have to worry about when it comes to drugs?). In this particular episode, however, the first of two devoted to ubiquitous “just say no” propaganda, it’s overshadowed by a horrifying B-plot.

The episode opens with Jamie and his friend, Reggie, grumbling about how, as seventh graders, they’re treated like babies at school. They decide that the best thing they can do in order to be viewed as more mature is to start smoking. That goes about as well as you would expect (even Vicki tries it, blowing smoke out of her ears instead of her mouth), but their efforts are all for naught anyway, when popular ninth grader Peter Watson (special guest star Adam Rich, already reduced to appearing in Small Wonder by this point) informs them that cigarettes are no longer cool, replaced in favor of chewing tobacco. Jamie and Reggie, who seem willing to cut off their thumbs if that’s what it takes to win Peter’s approval, go along with what he says, and immediately take up chaw instead.

The usual stumbling around to keep what they’re doing a secret from the adults is all but forgotten once you get to the bone chilling secondary plot. In keeping with the already unsettling premise of the show, during nighttime hours Vicki is stored in a cabinet in Jamie’s bedroom. Jamie complains that he doesn’t want her in there anymore because “she looks and smells like a girl.” Ted suggests that the cabinet be moved into his and Joan’s room, to which Joan bafflingly replies “That could be fun!” Later that night, despite Vicki’s presence in their bedroom (and despite her stating that she can see and hear them even from inside the cabinet), Ted tries to get it on with Joan, who is, understandably, perturbed at this abhorrent notion, and suggests that they watch an old movie instead. A puzzled, disappointed, and annoyed Ted shouts “Borrrrrring!” in response to that.

Let me reiterate: Ted is perfectly willing to have sex while the child robot he created (and ostensibly treats like a daughter) is standing there watching them, and irritated when Joan refuses. This is played for laughs on a family sitcom.

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A whole six hours or so after adopting his filthy new habit, Jamie is caught, and agrees to give it up. The next day, he announces to Ted and Joan that he’s learned his lesson, after finding out that Peter Watson was diagnosed with mouth cancer. The family spends approximately twenty seconds in somber reflection over the tragedy of a young life cut short, before Vicki comes in and announces that she’s moved her cabinet back into Jamie’s room, at Joan’s instruction. “Joanie, you animal!” Ted leers, to which Vicki yells “Borrrrrrrring!” The episode ends with poor Peter Watson all but forgotten in favor of the news that Ted and Joan can fuck in peace again.

I knew that revisiting Small Wonder wasn’t going to be an easy task. After all, things you don’t recall as being good the first time around rarely improve upon a second viewing, and certainly not years later. Everything about the show, from its absurd plot to its saccharine theme song to its 99 cent store special effects makes it seem like a parody of itself, like something you’d see on Adult Swim. The adult actors are useless, and the child actors (particularly Jerry Supiran as Jamie, who damn near shouts all his dialogue) play their roles with the kind of cheerful desperation that can only come from having overbearing stage parents. I suppose I also knew, even watching it as a young teenager, that there was something very weird about the gender politics of designing a little girl android whose primary purpose is to be a maid, while ostensibly staying young and cute forever. Looking back now as a shrill, middle aged feminist, all I can say is holy mother of God, how did this ever get made. This show is a festering onion found in a dank corner of a root cellar. It’s a parfait made of various layers of fecal matter. The further you dig in, the worse it smells, and the fact that this was presented as light, family friendly comedy is perhaps the most heinous aspect of it.

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I’m just going to come right out and say it: I’m pretty sure that Howard Leeds, the creator of Small Wonder, must have been dealing with some dark shit in his head when it came to women. Even if he hadn’t earlier created a show with a similar premise (only that time the robot was a sexy adult woman played by Julie Newmar), it would still be apparent. Not that anyone comes off well in this, but it’s the female characters who particularly fare poorly. First you have Vicki, a technological miracle reduced to being a docile servant (while dressed like a child half her age). Then you have nagging, shrewish Joan, obnoxious next door neighbor Mrs. Brindle (who thankfully doesn’t appear in this episode), and, perhaps the most oogy character in the whole show, Mrs. Brindle’s daughter, Harriet, a disturbingly thirsty 11 year-old who aggressively lies to, manipulates, and bullies Jamie, for the sole purpose of getting him to go out with her. Rather than someone simply sitting down with Harriet and explaining to her that “no means no,” she is humiliated, again and again, to the audience’s apparent delight. If these are the people from whom Vicki is supposed to learn what it means to be human, perhaps she’d have been better off being “retired” too.

Original airdate: September 13, 1986

Watch it here

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