“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?

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“Mr. T’s Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool” (1984)

Once upon a time, a burly black man with a Mohawk captured the hearts of white people everywhere. Mr. T, a former bouncer and bodyguard, met with almost instant stardom thanks to the success of The A-Team, one of the lone high points in a television season that also marked the debut (and subsequent demise) of Wizards and WarriorsAfterMASH, and Automan.

You’d think that Mr. T would have been a tough sell initially, considering his first major film role was Clubber Lang in Rocky III, who pretty much murdered Rocky’s beloved trainer/father figure Mickey Goldmill (and also implied that he had a bigger dick than Rocky). Nevertheless, barely two years after that he had a Saturday morning cartoon and a breakfast cereal named after him, and was photographed dressed up like Santa Claus, balancing Nancy Reagan on his knee like an adorable, AIDS-denying doll. America loved his story about triumph in the face of impossible odds, and silly looking haircuts.

On top of being a TV star, Mr. T also wanted to be an inspirational speaker for kids, preaching the importance of both physical and spiritual fitness. This culminated in Mr. T’s Be Somebody…or Be Somebody’s Fool, a videocassette release that offered tips to the young folks on how to live their best life. Broken down into sections that cover everything from peer pressure to exercise to even fashion, more than half of it consists of musical numbers, either rapped by Mr. T (and written by none other than a pre-Body Count Ice-T) or sung by children.

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“Strong Kids, Safe Kids” (1984)

Somewhere around 1981, network television producers discovered that (a) sexual abuse existed, (b) it was very, very bad, and (c) they should probably address it in some way. First it was handled in a rather lurid manner, as in the child porn drama Fallen Angel, then eventually softened enough to be sitcom fodder, as seen on the infamous “Bicycle Man” episodes of Diff’rent Strokes. At some point, someone had an intriguing thought: “Gee, perhaps we ought to have a show that tells children how to avoid these horrific events, rather than focusing on the events themselves.” That resulted in 1984’s Strong Kids, Safe Kids, which, like virtually every PSA made during the 80s, is equal parts sincere, baffling, corny, and. at times, inexplicably creepy.

Having come to the very sad (yet apparently correct) conclusion that children will listen to television actors and cartoon characters more than their own parents, the program features Henry Winkler, both as himself (wearing a series of terrific dad sweaters) and as the Fonz, John Ritter, and favorite of the young folks Mariette Hartley, as well as the Smurfs, Scooby Doo, the Flintstones, and other familiar animated faces, most of whom just show up at random moments in clips that only occasionally seem to relate to the subject at hand.

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“Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue” (1990)

When it became apparent that teenagers weren’t taking the message of D.A.R.E. seriously, the program was retooled to target a younger, less adept at detecting bullshit audience. With a younger audience came additional challenges–how do you encourage children to view “drugs” (the catchall for everything from alcohol to pills to pot to cocaine) as a real-life boogeyman, scaring them into avoiding anyone and anything that would allow even the most remote contact with them?

If parents, teachers, cops, and other hypocritical adults weren’t able to get through to the teens, then maybe it would take something a little different to work for the kids. This was how we ended up with 1990′s Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, a primetime special that used beloved animated characters to warn children about the dangers of drugs. This wasn’t just a special event, this was a Very Special Event, a collaborative effort between NBC, ABC, and CBS airing on multiple channels, sponsored by McDonald’s, featuring music by Academy Award winning composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and, in the VHS version at least, introduced by President George H.W. Bush. As expected, it manages to be both endearingly earnest, and maddeningly wrongheaded.

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