In 10 Words or Less
Classic sitcom premise, decent sitcom execution
Loves: Good sitcoms, '80s nostalgia
Likes: Small Wonder, being surprised by extras
Dislikes: The lack of Vicki here, Feeling pervy
Hates: The fan art
When I found out Small Wonder was finally hitting DVD, well...I doubt I could explain my excitement. The words "Holy s--t" actually burst forth from my lips. Such is the power of nostalgia. I had not seen Vicki and her family in almost two decades, so my memories of the show were purely from the point of view of a pre-teen boy, and they were glorious, as this series, starring a chubby-cheeked little guy (not unlike your reviewer at a younger age) and his robot sister, held an esteemed spot in the memory bank. Those four years of sci-fi flavored comedy were seared in my brain, and were easily awoken with the first notes of the cheesetastic old-school theme song ("She's fantastic, made of plastic...microchips here and there...")
The concept of Small Wonder puts it firmly in the fantasy sitcom family, alongside classic out-there ideas like genies, witches and talking horses. The situation here involves Ted Lawson (Dick Christie), a cybernetics engineer with a secret project he's been working on. He's been experimenting with robotics, and has created the Voice Input Child Identicant, or V.I.C.I., a lifelike robot. In order to perfect it, he sneaks it home, which requires him to pretend the project is part of his family, a doll-dress wearing niece named Vicki (Tiffany Brissette.) Living with Ted, his wife Joan (Marla Pennington) and their son Jamie (Jerry Supiran), Vicki learns about being a human and experiences the difficulties that accompany the illogical nature of modern life.
Watching the episodes, which frequently involve some kind of hassle over keeping Vicki's robotic existence secret, especially from the nosey Brindle family next door (featuring sitcom gold Edie McClurg and the daughter Harriett (Emily Schulman,) the single most annoying child character in TV history,) it's striking how stiff the writing and acting is, and how much sitcoms have, for the most part, improved in the past two decades. Every punchline is delivered in emphasized fashion, with exaggerated physicality and unnatural pauses, and the set-ups are visible from miles away. Of course, this made sense when it came to Vicki, who often got laughs from mimicking her family in her halting, robotic voice or making odd faces, but the others just come off as awkward. Brissette had the voice down pat, and managed passable imitations of the rest of the cast, though if you pay close attention, sometimes she loses the robot act for a second or two.
The use of the robot concept is actually not bad, as she adds some awkwardness to the usual family comedy, repeating things inappropriately or taking what she's told literally, though the robot effects, which normally involve feats of strength, are laughably poor in quality, with obvious special effects put in. It's one of the parts of the show that dates it (along with Joan's clothes,) in stark contrast with the behavior of the rest of the family, which is downright progressive. Ted and Joan are a particularly randy couple who have trouble keeping their hands off each other, and there are frequent innuendos shared between them. Meanwhile, Jamie's smart-alec behavior (and somewhat adult dialogue) is far more appropriate for today's knowing teen sitcom characters than an elementary-school student in the mid-'80s. He's got a sharp tongue and doesn't hesitate to insult almost anyone, yet somehow is basically the show's star, as most of the plots center around him, including his egomaniacal attempt at directing a school film project, his scheme to become "the Burrito King" and his effort to teach his father about sex (yup, that's right.)
Though grabbing for laughs with over-the-top gags, including one surprisingly hilarious gag from Joan, the show could take odd detours into less humorous situations, like Ted's dissatisfying work (which isn't aided by living next-door to his boss, the insufferable Brandon Brindle (Bill Bogert),) a multi-part story involving Child Services and a suggested kidnapping that oddly leaves the family laughing heartily. It just gets darker with an episode featuring Ken Berry (Mama's Family) as a vaudevillian who thinks Vicki is his lost daughter and wants her to join his act, and the season finale, where Ted reveals Vicki's secret to his parents, with really bad results. Such a juxtaposition between laughs and darkness seems to be an regular feature in '80s sitcoms, as anyone who remembers Dudley in the bike store can attest to.
An odd final note: for the main cast, this show was the final or nearly final role of their acting careers. Their performances were certainly not bad enough to blacklist them from the industry. Maybe it's just the curse of the robot.
The four DVDs holding the 24 first-season episodes of Small Wonder are packed in a pair of clear dual-hubbed ThinPaks, with lists of episodes on the covers. The cases are inside a thin cardboard slipcase. The discs have animated, full-frame menus, with options to play all the episodes, select individual ones and check out the bonus features. There are no audio options, no subtitles and no closed captioning.
If you've ever watched the show online, where episodes can be found here and there, the quality of these full-frame transfers is a revelation. Sure, they look their age, but they don't look as beaten as the VHS recordings floating around, suffering mainly from an image that's a bit soft and color that's slightly dull (and somewhat red in places.) There are no issues with dirt or damage, and no obvious problems with digital artifacts. (Note: on the screenshots, you'll see black on the right side of the image, but this wasn't visible on-screen.)
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks that present the show's simple audio tracks clearly, with a center-balanced delivery. There's nothing to be impressed by, but it's all good for a show of its age.
Amazingly, for a series that's somewhat disregarded, there are commentaries included on these DVDs, five in all, with Christie, Pennington and Supiran in on all of them, and McClurg, actor Daryl Bartley and creator and executive producer Howard Leeds sitting in on one track each. Unfortunately, Brisette and Schulman aren't on hand (there's a very brief mention of Brissette and a touch more about Schulman) but the others have plenty to say (to the point where some of the tracks extend beyond the episode, playing over black screens.) Though there's something of a self-congratulatory tone to the commentaries, there's also a lot of background offered, including a bizarre discussion about the use of little people on the series, and the odd way they laugh. It's really fascinating to hear. Also unique is the inclusion of Bartley, who wasn't a regular on the series. One wonders why he was selected to provide commentary.
The other big extra is the inclusion of the original promos for the episodes, which were likely made by the production company for the channels to put their scheduling info on. These are about as bad as promos can get, with narration that not only annoys with its sunny disposition, but also reveals basically the entire plot of the show, to the point where these things can serve as recaps of the episodes in most cases. For historical purposes, it's a nice inclusion.
The final extra is one of the more bizarre elements of bonus material I've ever seen. Shout! Factory reached out to fans to send in fan art about the series. The 11 pieces included here, if found on your person, would likely result in some sort of extended hospitalization. If this is the best the Small Wonder audience could manage, it's time to break up the band. It's utterly creepy in places.
During the commentaries, Pennington mentions blooper reels that she just watched, but, disappointingly, they aren't included on these DVDs. Maybe Season Two?
The Bottom Line
For fans of classic sitcom structure and old-school sitcom concepts, Small Wonder is a treat, but it's not aged well by any scale, thanks to acting that's better described as mugging and special effects that aren't all that special. Despite that, the nostalgia value can't be denied, the quality of the DVDs is reasonably high and there's a surprising amount of bonus material. Watching these episodes now with my little girl is a chance to enjoy them again, and she thinks Vicki's robot act is a riot, so perhaps the youth are the best audience for this show.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.