We are in the midst of our blog series “I Robot.” If you read last week’s blog, you will remember we were discussing My Living Doll, a science fiction comedy from the mid-sixties created by Howard Leeds.
Today we are moving ahead two decades to look at another Howard Leeds’ show from the mid-eighties called Small Wonder, another science fiction sitcom.
The concept of the show is that Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) and his family–wife Joan (Marla Pennington) and son Jamie (Jerry Supiran)–live in a typical residential area. Lawson has created V.I.C.I., an android that contains Voice Input Child Indenticant whom he calls Vicki (Tiffany Brissette). Lawson created the robot to help handicapped children, and she looks like a ten-year-old girl. Lawson has to take her home to learn about family environments and be “trained” for home service. Similar to Rhoda on My Living Doll, Vicki has an outlet under her right arm, a data port under her left arm, and an access panel in her back. She possesses superhuman strength and speed. Seth Green auditioned for the role of Jamie and, Candace Cameron Bure was up for the role of Vicki, along with 398 other girls.
The Lawsons have to keep her identity a secret and pass her off for a daughter they adopted. Their neighbor, ten-year-old Harriet (Emily Schulman), a la Gladys Kravitz, was very nosy and made the secret hard to maintain. Jamie works hard to scheme and find ways to get Vicki to make his life easier.
Rounding out the cast were Brandon and Bonnie Brindle (William Bogert and Edie McClurg) who were Harriet’s parents; Brandon was also Ted’s boss; Reggie (Paul C. Scott), Jessica (Lihann Jones), and Warren (Daryl Bartley), Jamie’s friends.
The show was on for four seasons and, of course, Brissette continued to grow and age, so in season three Ted gives Vicki an upgrade which allows her to wear current fashions, eat, and drink, making it easier to conceal her identity.
Unfortunately for Leeds, this show has also been dubbed one of the worst sitcoms of all time, despite the fact that it was on for four years. Robert Bianco, TV critic for USA Today, wrote in 2002 that it was a contender for one of the worst TV shows of all time, and the BBC described it as the worst low-budget sitcom of all time (as an aside, the first season provided $300,000 per episode). Lest you think Leeds could not come up with a successful show; know that he also produced The Brady Bunch, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Silver Spoons, and The Facts of Life. He also wrote scripts for forty-two different shows.
Although it was not popular with critics, viewers seemed to enjoy it. The show was later sold to more than twenty countries, including Brazil, France, India, and Italy.
In 2015, Dave Nemetz spoke with Marla Pennington Rowan and Emily Schulman Webster about their time on the show. They both felt sorry for Brissette. She had a lot of skills such as singing, dancing, gymnastics, and piano playing, but all she could do on the show was to be a robot. She had to talk in a monotone while showing no emotions. Webster said it was so challenging for her but she was a pro. She mentioned that “she had to bite the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling. That was tough. My heart sort of broke for her.”
Both stars mentioned how hard the special effect filming was for Tiffany. It might be her head spinning around and around or lifting the couch with one arm to clean under it. Those scenes were filmed on Thursdays with the use of green screen technology. Webster said it was not easy and that “Tiffany had to endure it, it would take a lot of trial and error.” In addition to these talents, Vicki could shrink down to the size of a doll, extend to ten feet tall, channel electricity through her hands, and she possessed unlimited learning ability to improve products.
Rowan and Webster said the cast got along great, just like one big family. However, the parents of the minor stars surely did not. Three tutors were employed on the set because the parents could not agree on choosing the same one. Rowan mentioned that apparently, the parents thought they were the stars of the show.
The show was very popular with kids especially. However, power struggles were not confined to overbearing parents; the corporate level had plenty of controversy as well. I’m not sure why, but the show was owned by five different companies, and they did not agree on much either. Once they knew there were enough shows to put it into syndication the show was done. No one knew if they were going to be picked up for the next season or not; they weren’t, so there was never any finale produced.
One of the most memorable parts of the show might be the theme song. It’s lyrics are:
She’s a small wonder; pretty and bright with soft curls.
She’s a small wonder; a girl unlike other girls.
She’s a miracle and I grant you, she’ll enchant you at first sight.
She’s a small wonder, and she’ll make your heart take flight.
She’s fantastic, made of plastic; microchips here and there.
She’s a small wonder, brings love and laughter everywhere.
So how did it work out for the trying parent/managers? None of the three children are actors any longer. Brissette is a nurse in Colorado, Supiran was broke and homeless in 2012 but is in a better place today, and Schulman Rowan writes cookbooks and is considering acting again. Her last role was in the show Christy in the mid-nineties.
If you watch Antenna TV you might be very familiar with the show. It’s no longer in the rotation, but I have watched it several times on the network in the past. It definitely is not anything I would clear my schedule for. I’m not sure I would classify it as the worst sitcom of all time; it seems in the past 40 years, we have come up with some pretty bad options. However, I certainly would not spend my time watching this one. I’m just going to chalk it up to fulfilling a need in the eighties on Saturdays that does not age well.