It doesn’t take much tweaking to turn a great idea for a TV series into something ridiculous. Want to make a show about a diverse cross-section of humanity forging a new society? Or about race relations in Manhattan? Or the dangers of humanizing automatons? Slant it the wrong way, and you may end up with Gilligan’s Island, Diff’rent Strokes, or Small Wonder. Yet even if a show turns out so, so wrong, it can still make a statement—intentional or not. When Small Wonder debuted in syndication in 1985, it introduced the character of V.I.C.I. (short for Voice Imprint Child Identicant), a household-helper robot designed by its creator to look like a 10-year-old girl, and intended to resolve the question of whether an android can “be programmed to have human values and emotions.” The girlbot lives in a closet in the bedroom of the family’s 12-year-old son, and though her hosts praise “Vicki” for her adorability—and for behaving thoughtfully and independently—that doesn’t stop them from treating her as a cute, pony-tailed slave. Vicki has no desires of her own, which makes her monotone mimicry of her masters’ orders all the sadder. Small Wonder is like the sitcom version of A.I.
Academic papers—no kidding—have been written about what Small Wonder has to say about gender roles and class divides in the mid-’80s and beyond. None of that kind of analysis makes it into the Small Wonder: The Complete First Season DVD set, which sticks with the original 24 episodes, plus commentary tracks on selected episodes by the creators and cast. (Conspicuously minus star Tiffany Brissette… did she not want to shatter the illusion?) The cast and crew mostly admire each other’s work, and laugh about their poofy hairstyles and fashionable jumpsuits. No one mentions Small Wonder’s contrived plots, lame puns, stiff performances, cruddy special effects, oddly smutty jokes, or profoundly off-putting premise.
Then again, the show itself is pretty oblivious to its own dubious qualities. Small Wonder’s style—which still pertains to the kid-friendly sitcoms on The Disney Channel—combines bright lights, broad characters, and catchphrases, but all the “happy happy, fun fun” trappings are undermined with every reaction shot where Vicky either comically misunderstands her masters’ orders, or imitates them blankly. Imagine if That’s So Raven featured frequent interjections from a creepy, non-human construct whose very existence raised disturbing questions about what constitutes a soul. If there weren’t copious evidence to the contrary, it would almost seem that Small Wonder was cooked up by a staff of sitcom geniuses, committed enough to spend four seasons revealing the bankruptcy of the form by showing how easy it is to couch the inappropriate in the innocuous.
Key features: Those clueless commentary tracks.