’80s Couch Surfing: Small Wonder

Welcome to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review two random episodes of a sitcom from the 1980s. Today’s entry is Small Wonder (1985-1989), a bizarre show about a family that “adopts” a clearly fake robot girl and then tries to hide her from the world.

Season 1 Episode 1: Vicki’s Homecoming

Small Wonder was always one of those shows that I was never quite sure actually existed — or if I had dreamed it — even though I’m fairly confident that I watched it occasionally when I was a kid. The premise promised nominal science fiction fun, but the execution was… well, let’s see how it goes. I wanted to start with the pilot, since it’s key to be able to trace the logic in how this whole situation was contrived.

The episode starts with Jamie Lawson coming home from school to eat a carrot (?) and enjoy the very last few moments of being an only child. He does throw some shade at his mom for “not working on” getting a sibling going, so that’s a nice awkward moment right there. The supremely annoying neighbor kid Harriet pops by, and Small Wonder actually gets a laugh from me as Jamie opens the door, says “Hi Harriet!” and then SLAMS the door in her face. Harriet is followed up by Jamie’s dad, Ted, who is one of those absent-minded inventors in the great tradition of the time. He’s been working late on a “secret project” — and yet his wife is not as concerned as I honestly would be in her place.

Ted sneaks his project home, explaining that his robotics company wasn’t interested in hearing what he had to say. So I guess he just stole company property? In any case, the project is a lifelike robotic girl — V.I.C.I. — who Ted sees as having service applications in hospitals and the like. Back in the ’80s, everyone believed pretty much anything about the potential for robots and computers, but this sort of thing is just pure fantasy. Anyway, Ted activates “Vicki” and she begins her streak of literally doing whatever anyone tells her to do and talking in that fake monotone voice that little kids do when they’re trying to act like robots.

So the episode is pretty much the family getting used to the new addition (the official lie being that Vicki is a “cousin”) and trying to keep her from destroying everything. It’s such a weird show to get a handle on. In one respect, it’s got that dull, overly scripted sitcom patter that screams “fake” at every turn, and the writers clearly have never met actual children, as their dialogue is more suited for a 70-year-old. In another respect, the whole setup is just bonkers. Ted has created this lifelike girl and then acts all confused that everyone keeps treating her as such. I don’t know whether to laugh or scream when he just yanks off her “real human hair” and offers his wife to make her a redhead.

And, I have to admit, there’s a real creepy vibe that runs through the whole show. I don’t think any of it is intended, but viewing it from today, it’s uncomfortable how many sly references to sex that they make the kids say. Seeing Ted just manhandle Vicki is disturbing, witnessing Harriet continually spy through windows on Jamie is unnerving, and watching Jamie figure out that he can make Vicki his literal slave is something that I want to wash my hands of entirelly.

That all said, is it entertaining? Is it funny? Yyyyyyes. Sometimes. Between the piles of awkward, there are some great visual gags, such as when Vicki just dumps breakfast on the adults in bed or two (!) door slams in Harriet’s face. Once in a while the jokes are pretty funny, even though there’s so much pausing before and after them that you know some studio producer is glaring at you until you laugh. It’s like a normal sitcom with a very abnormal premise that everyone treats as pretty standard, and my brain can’t make sense of that.

Let’s see how it goes with an episode from a few seasons on…

Season 3 Episode 18: The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

The theme song got jazzed up from the original, but I actually like it a lot less. It’s like a bad cover. Anyway, the kids are now in junior high, and I guess Vicki got an upgrade because she looks a few years older than in the pilot (and dressed far more in ’80s fashion than the frilly white-and-red maid outfit). Teacher Joan (the mom) is told that the Soviet Union — which was a thing back then, look it up, kids — is sending over a team to enter into an academic competition with the school’s children. “We’ll beat the pants off them!” Jamie says. “Then the Russians will have to compete in their underwear,” Vicki follows.

Vicki’s chosen to compete, which isn’t fair seeing as how she has the processing power of a Pentium II, but anything to beat the Russians, right? And in the story’s B-plot, Harriet comes over to tell Jamie that she’s no longer going to be throwing herself at him but rather playing hard-to-get. Oh yeahhhh… I forgot that Harriet was infatuated with Jamie. Don’t know why, that boy is about as romantic as a Teddy Ruxpin, but there’s no bottom to the well of Harriet’s annoying traits. She starts sniffing Jamie because he’s wearing cologne, and there’s another one of those rare-and-must-be-treasured funny moments when Jamie’s pushing her head like a dog and saying “down Harriet!”

There’s a reception for the Russians, which I guess is one guy channeling a really bad accent and his protegee, a blond kid named Vladimir. Because of course it’s Vladimir. One thing I do like about this episode is that they clearly allowed the actress playing Vicki to start expressing herself more beyond the monotone, although mostly it’s just in mimicry. She’s… not half bad.

Vladimir is a total snot of a kid — or as Jamie says, a “meatball.” The kids show Vladimir around the school as he makes condescending remarks about America. In response, Jamie pulls out a poster of three swimsuit models missing most of their heads and presents it like it’s the greatest thing he’s ever seen. Maybe it is. It’s played so earnestly that I couldn’t help but laugh, but mostly it was a laugh of pity for these child actors and the normal life they would never have. Vicki gets another laugh when she does an impression of a dissected frog from her biology lab:

The Russian guy is starting to get under Ted’s skin with his boasting about how superior the USSR was — again, this was the ’80s. Any opportunity to take potshots at Russians, opportunity was taken. Oh, and it turns out that Vladimir is a robot too, just like Vicki:

“Um, Ted, why are you unbuttoning that young boy’s shirt in the middle of a junior high hallway?” “I THINK HE’S ROBOT!” That will not hold up in court, Ted.

Vicki and Vladimir face off against each other in what sounds to my ear like a pub trivia contest. Since they’ve both read the same books and have the same reflexes, they tie over and over again. This isn’t good enough for Ted, who uses his robotic know-how to reprogram Vladimir to make a pro-USA statement from the podium. He then tries to defect, which triggers the whole room into singing the national anthem. Somehow, I don’t think this episode was trying to be fair to the Russians.

Ted confronts Boris and gets him to take Vladimir back to the Soviet Union and the family gets so overwhelmed with patriotism — and I’m totally not making this up — that they start singing “Yankee Doodle” in the hallway. And that’s the episode.

Like most ’80s sitcoms, the pacing of the show is a lot harder to take when you’re used to more modern one-camera setups. It’s like a small play, and not necessarily a good one. I wouldn’t say that this episode was a laugh riot, but you know what? I can’t say that it’s devoid of genuinely funny humor, either.

2 comments

  1. Have you considered using shows that aren’t sitcoms for this feature? Max Headroom might be a worthwhile subject.

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