Small Wonder: The Very First A.I.

Small Wonder

She’s fantastic, made of plastic..” no, we’re not talking about a Kardashian but a sitcom from the 80s featuring an android child.

Small Wonder was a science-fiction sitcom based on a 10-year old robot called Vicki created by an engineer named Ted Lawson who tries to pass her off as his adopted daughter.  It ran from September 1985 to May 1989.

Thus begins a look back at an iconic, but weird af, show of the 80s. I loved Small Wonder and it seemed like part sitcom part futuristic prediction. The show’s creators seemed pretty sure that having artificial intelligence, or A.I., was definitely going to be part of our future. It was like a predecessor to Terminator.

Small Wonder was rare for a sitcom in that it ran on Saturdays so it was easy for it to find a young market. It also had a pretty memorable theme song which gave it a wholesome 50s sitcom type vibe. Despite being a funny show there was a lot of interesting development behind it, was tough on the child star who played Vicki, and maybe wasn’t that appropriate for kids.

Small Wonder was created by Howard Leeds who co-created Silver Spoons and worked on Different Strokes. He was a child-actor himself and also worked on a show in the 1960s called “My Living Doll” that featured a young Julie Newmar (Catwoman) as an android trying to blend in with society.

Wait till he would get to see Short Circuit!

Some loved Small Wonder and some said it was the worst show ever – either way, here’s the story of Small Wonder: The very first A.I.

The Premise Of Small Wonder

Here’s a quick rundown on the premise of the show in case you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. The show is based around a child robot named V.I.C.I (Voice input child indenticant) and this always made me think of the replicants of Bladerunner. (you could say Small Wonder is like the child’s version of Bladerunner. Well maybe you couldn’t but I could)

Vicki is an android of a 10-year old girl and was built by Ted Lawson who was an engineer/inventor for United Robotronics which is a pretty sweet name. Vicki was created as a way to assist handicap children and Ted brings her home so that she can mature and learn about a family environment.

So Vicki is kind of like Iron Man and has superhuman strength and speed. She’s also very functional and has an AC outlet under her right arm, a data port under her left arm, and an access panel on her back. Not sure if they upgraded to include a USB port and wireless charging though…She speaks in a monotone robotic voice and has the ability to elongate her neck like she’s Inspector Gadget. Here are a few more of her abilities:

  • She can shrink down to the size of a doll
  • She can grow to ten feet tall (OK, she’s basically Ant-Man)
  • She could channel electricity through her hands (like to emperor)  to jump-start a car OR a persons heart
  • She possessed a super-powered learning ability to do things like improve products or extend the gas mileage on cars. (why hasn’t the government actually been working on real Vicki’s?)

Honestly, I think not using Vicki as an Avenger was a huge missed opportunity. She could have definitely held her own against Thanos…

In kind of an ALF type move, the family tries to pass off Vicki as an adopted child who had been unfortunately orphaned. The Lawson family is trying to keep her existence a secret – also like ALF- but it’s hard because of their wacky, meddling neighbors the Ochmoneks. I mean the Brindles…

The Brindles are always showing up when it’s inconvenient especially the annoying as hell daughter Harriet. Her father is co-workers with Ted which ups the wackiness factor.

The Actors Of Small Wonder

Victoria “Vicki” Ann-Smith LawsonTiffany Brissette (Most notably she did a voice in Caravan of Courage; An Ewok Adventure, and also a voice on The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin)

Ted Lawson – Dick Christie (was on a lot of classics like Who’s The Boss, Knotts Landing, Newhart, The Ropers, and even appeared on Breaking Bad)

Joan Lawson: The mother – Marla Pennington (Was on Different Strokes, Magnum P.I., Charlies Angels, Happy Days and The Incredible Hulk)

Jamie Lawson: The Brother – Jerry Suprian (Little House on the Prarie, Mr. Belvedere, Highway to Heaven)

Harriet Brindle – Emily Schulman (Mr. Belvedere, ALF!, The Wonder Years, Troop Beverly Hills)

These are your main characters and some of the other characters would include Harriet’s parents Brandon and Bonnie, her aunt Ida Mae, and random friends of Jamie’s.

Oh, and there was also Vanessa, the evil robot who looked just like Vicki but did not speak in a monotone voice. This was the Small Wonder version of Stefan from Family Matters

Creating The Techincal Shots Of Small Wonder

You wouldn’t think that a sitcom would have that many issues filming as they tend to be a straightforward multi-camera show on a soundstage. Because Vicki was basically like Johnny-5, the show required some technical shots to showcase her abilities. These were genuine special effects shots and would make use of a primitive version of green screen.

Some of these type shots would be things like when Vicki’s head would spin around like she was Linda Blair in the Exorcist. Another example is her strength such as lifting an entire couch with one arm to be able to vacuum under it. Seriously, why wasn’t she in Infinity War and End Game??

The show would have to devote all of Thursday mornings to set up and record these shots. This put a bit of a damper on the shooting schedule as sitcoms didn’t have this issue to worry about. I don’t remember Alex. P. Keaton having to shoot lasers out of his hands to warm up soup on Family Ties

Most of the special effects shots would just be of Vicki so that they didn’t have to bring in the other caster members which would take even more time to get them ready for wardrobe and do makeup etc.

Problems With The Cast Of Small Wonder

According to interviews with the cast, they all got along really well but it was the parents of the child actors who caused a lot of the crap that went down on set. All of the parents of the three different kids demanded specific tutors on set. Since they couldn’t all agree on the same one three different ones needed to be used.

All the parents didn’t get along at all so even though the kids were all chummy the parents created all the unnecessary tension on set. They would always clash with each other and the other cast members remarked that the parents were acting like they were the stars.

The adult cast members also didn’t totally know what the hell they were making. They were aware it was a kids show but it also featured a lot of weird sexual innuendoes. Honestly, watch it back – I don’t remember it being that creepy with Ted being all over Joan. Marla Pennington who played mother Joan saw it as not being considered their best work but quite simply a paying job for most of the actors.

She also thought the show sounded sketchy and even some of the writers hated writing such drivel. The mother would often be introduced in the start of episodes chopping carrots to show how “thinly drawn” the character was. Writers had to write so few pages of dialogue they were said to wonder if they were working on a sitcom or an oil painting.

Issues For Tiffany Brissette

Most might not know it due to having to play a robotic character but Tiffany Brissette was a multi-talented actor who could sing, dance, do gymnastics, play instruments, ride a horse, you name it. She had even been up for the role of Punky Brewster which I could definitely have seen her play. She was picked out of 400 different girls for the role but would be stuck in that character for the whole show.

She seemed to get frustrated as she was stuck in this role with the same outfit and couldn’t show off any of her real abilities. She would have to give these monotone performances but bite her cheek from laughing at any of the other lines. Brissette’s mother would also cause issues backstage and push more for her daughter and her abilities.

She was also involved with having to do all the technical shoots by herself which would take a lot of time, and trial and error. Brissette would later leave show business and go on to become a nurse in Boulder, Colorado. Though they did surprise here with a reunion on air of her and her cast members back in 2007 that you can watch here.

And here’s a deep cut; this is Tiffany Brissette singing when younger on the 700 club here

The Impact Of Small Wonder

So Small Wonder was a pretty big hit. It was geared towards younger viewers and they were able to capitalize on that due to being seen on Saturday mornings which was pretty unheard of then for a live-action show – let alone a sitcom. They also didn’t have any real competition at this time which made it easier to attract an audience.

The show would debut on September 7, 1985, They would do four seasons covering 96 episodes and the ratings were pretty solid over the four years. Over the seasons they would average anywhere from 7-8 million viewers a show which again, for a Saturday morning was pretty good.

A big thing Small Wonder did – which was pretty pioneering – was syndicate their original first-run series. This basically means that it started out as a syndicated show – it’s kind of like going direct to video. This was an approach used by studios as it was cheaper to produce and way less expensive to air than a prime-time series.  

Small Wonder actually had a pretty low price tag per episode ($300,000) and that was pretty evident in the low-budget appearance of the show – not to mention the poor special effects, but what do you expect? It was 1985 and they weren’t working with Industrial Light & Magic.

Besides North America, Small Wonder was a huge hit in Italy, France, India, and Brazil and was dubbed into 52 different languages. In a lot of countries, it was called “Super Vicki” which is also awesome.  The actors started to become quite popular getting mobbed the odd time while out in public. It was loved by children and even senior citizens.

Final Thoughts On Small Wonder

I liked Small Wonder. I think I was in the right range that it appealed to me as a kid because I was around 8-9 when it first debuted. It followed the usual run-of-the-mill sitcom tropes but it definitely was creative and deserves some respect for that.

It constantly shows up on “worst shows of the 80s” lists but it wasn’t trying to be something it wasn’t. It was the cheapest sitcom of the time to produce and it was noted that it was impossible for it not to make money due to its low cost. So I get it, it was a pretty easy route to a quick buck but allowed them to entertain and connect with people around the world. The writers would note how constantly shocked they were at the high ratings and it kept them in work – even if Small Wonder wasn’t something they necessarily wanted on their resume.

So it had its moment and everyone remembered it which is kind of all you can ask for when trying to make your mark on pop culture.