TV on DVD: “Small Wonder: The Complete First Season”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Kelly Stitzel was all kinds of excited when she heard the first season of this syndicated ’80s sitcom was coming to DVD. Now that she’s seen it, how does she feel?

Hi-ee, everybody!

For years the answer to the question “Is Small Wonder on DVD?” has been “No no no no no no!” But Shout! Factory has made dreams (nightmares?) come true for fans of the syndicated, cult-classic ’80s sitcom by releasing the entire first season on DVD.

I admit it — I was giddy with anticipation when I first read the announcement many months ago that Small Wonder was finally coming to home video. And when the package containing my review copy arrived in the mail, I was even more excited.

Sadly, life and other stuff got in the way of me watching the four-disc set until this past week. I know Jeff Giles was very disappointed that I didn’t immediately pop the first disc into my DVD player the moment I ripped the shrink-wrap off the brightly colored (yet surprisingly thin) packaging.

Trapped in my house by one of the many snowstorms Cincinnati’s had in the past few weeks, I decided it was time to let V.I.C.I. and the Lawson family back into my life.

Before I go any further, let me give you the 411 on Small Wonder‘s premise: Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) is a genius cybernetics engineer who works at a robotics firm in California. One day he brings home his latest top-secret invention, a robot he calls a Voice Input Child Identicant — or V.I.C.I., for short (Tiffany Brissette) — who looks like a ten-year-old girl.

At first his wife, Joan (Marla Pennington), and his son, Jamie (Jerry Supiran), are unsure how to deal with the new addition to their family. But they soon adjust, and Joan begins thinking of Vicki (of course they had to make her name more like that of a human child) as her daughter, while Jamie starts finding ways for his new “sister” to make his life easier, like doing his homework and cleaning his room.

The big challenge for the Lawsons is making everyone think Vicki is human, particularly their boorish, nosy neighbors, the Brindles: Brandon (William Bogert), who’s also Ted’s boss at the robotics firm; his wife, Bonnie (Edie McClurg); and their annoying daughter, Harriet (Emily Schulman).

I sat down on a snowy afternoon with a bottle of wine and my laptop, ready to take notes. The opening credits of the first episode started up, and I was immediately transported back to 1985. I still knew every word of the theme song and sang along, wishing there was someone to harmonize with, while at the same time glad no one was around to witness my performance.

As soon as the first scene faded in, I feverishly began jotting down notes, which I continued to do for each episode I watched. In order for you to get a real feel for my experience, I need to provide you with these notes, unedited. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have read some of them already, but here we go:

  • I totally forgot the dad brought Vicki home in a damn SUITCASE.
  • Oh, that precocious little girl who can pick up giant jugs of water with one hand.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation totally missed out on casting Tiffany Brissette as Data’s daughter.
  • I’m realizing that I watched too much television as a child. I think I must have watched this show just because it was on TV.
  • The special effects are something to behold. Avatar has nothing on Small Wonder.
  • Clearly, I did drugs when I was a child. I mean, I didn’t find this shit funny, did I? I’d like to think I had a better sense of humor when I was a child.
  • This show is kind of like a fake sitcom you’d see in a movie about a child star who grows up and turns out to be a sex-crazed alcoholic with a rage problem.
  • “There are no funny lines in my memory bank.”
  • Mrs. Lawson wears entirely too many jumpsuits.
  • This show is like a series of bad SNL skits.
  • “It’s like Snow White being played by Joan Rivers.” The 30 Rock of syndicated child-robot sitcoms, I tell you.
  • “Would you see if you can find my chin strap?” WHO WRITES THIS SHIT?
  • Why did no one ever say anything about this child wearing THE SAME OUTFIT EVERY SINGLE DAY?
  • Oh, I totally forgot that there’s a cross-dressing episode of Small Wonder. The laughs never end.
  • “I really don’t like lying to my parents, but I like child abuse even less.” Positive messages from the set of Small Wonder.
  • Homophobic Boy George jokes! KIDS’ SHOW!

When shows like Small Wonder are off the air for so long, those of us who watched them when we were younger tend to get excited about their return and think they’re going to be better than they really are. Sometimes notstalgia overtakes good taste.

That being said, I did find myself laughing out loud quite a bit during these episodes, not so much because of funny dialogue but because of how ridiculous Small Wonder really is. The special effects are awful. The jokes are mostly overwrought and forced. And the acting is incredibly over the top. Poor little Emily Schulman sounds just as much like a robot as Brissette, albeit an obnoxious, cheery robot you want to punch in the face. I imagine the only pieces of direction she ever got were to end every sentence as if she were asking a question and to bob her head a lot.

However, as the first season progressed, Brissette developed a pretty decent sense of comic timing. Even though most of the jokes were terribly unfunny, she made the most of them, deadpanning and making you laugh in spite of yourself. And there are a few moments here and there that are genuinely funny, like when she starts to laugh in the episode “The Sitter” as she and Supiran breakdance, coming dangerously close to breaking character.

One of the things that I find most fascinating about Small Wonder is how the kids are always acting like adults, but not like young, modern adults — these ten-year-olds sound like they’re 45 and living in 1948. For example, in the episode “Love Story,” the girl Jamie has a crush on bandies about French words for no reason and is so affected you’d swear she just stepped off the set of a World War II-era melodrama. Even Supiran admits in the audio commentary for the episode “Ted’s New Boss” that he didn’t understand some of the dialogue he was given by the writers; the other cast members who participate — Christie, Pennington, and McClurg — agree, noting that the kids were always talking beyond their years.

Even though I’m giving Small Wonder a lot of shit, I did have fun watching it. It brought back a lot of memories and provided ample opportunity to question the hair and fashion choices we humans (and robots) made in the 1980s. Though the episodes tended to air in random order when the show was on the air, all 24 are presented on DVD the way they were meant to be seen, which is nice.

The set’s extras include original episode promos, a fan-art gallery, and audio commentaries by the show’s creator, Howard Leeds, and members of the cast. I highly recommend you listen to the commentaries, particularly the one for “Ted’s New Boss” — the actors are hilarious and snarky, not to mention full of fun trivia.

OK, time to go now. Bye-ee!

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