Thursday, September 16, 2004

Things That Suck: SMALL WONDER

She's a small wonder,
Pretty and bright with soft curls.
She's a small wonder,
A girl unlike other girls.
She's a miracle, and I grant you,
She'll enchant you at first sight,
She's a small wonder
And she'll make your heart take flight.
She's fantastic, made of plastic,
Microchips here and there,
She's a small wonder,
Brings love and laughter everywhere!

Of all the bad '80s sitcoms, Small Wonder is generally considered to be the holy grail of awfulness, the compendium of everything that was deeply wrong about '80s sitcoms. For those of you who don't remember it, a brief rundown of the premise: Ted Lawson is a scientist for United Robotronics. He comes up with his greatest invention yet: an android, perfectly lifelike and in the shape of a ten year-old girl, named Vicki. (Her robotic name is "Voice Input Child Identicant," which abbreviates to VICI, hence, Vicki.). Vicki is super strong, super fast, super smart, and has various other undefined abilities that can come and go depending on what the episode requires her to do. She also talks in a Robby the Robot-style monotone. To keep his boss at United Robotronics from stealing his brilliant idea before he's perfected it, Ted decides to pass Vicki off as his adopted daughter. Only Ted, his wife Joan, and his son Jamie (that's "m" before "i" Jamie, no relation to my name, okay?) know that Vicki is a robot. Most episodes involve some wacky scheme to keep the boss/nosy neighbors/government agents from finding out about Vicki. Especially the nosy neighbors, who are always trying to peek through the window, a la Gladys Kravitz, and always just miss proving that something weird is going on at the Lawson house. Oh, and Jamie often learns some kind of lesson about something or other. Sample plots:

- A schoolkid tries to sell Vicki some drugs, causing all the characters to get involved in a sting operation and an anti-drug public service message.
- The Lawsons enter Vicki in the "Little Miss Shopping Mall" beauty contest against Harriet, the obnoxiously nosy daughter of the Lawsons' obnoxiously nosy neighbors. (Beauty contests were the plot device in '80s sitcoms, or at least they were number-two behind anti-drug episodes.)
- Ted's father just lost his job to a machine, and he hates all things automated. How can Ted explain to him that his adopted granddaughter is really a machine herself? Will he learn to accept Vicki even though she's a machine?

Small Wonder was created by a veteran TV writer, Howard Leeds (he helped create The Facts of Life and wrote for everything from Barney Miller to Bewitched), and he got other veterans to write for the show, meaning that there were people writing for Small Wonder who had previously written for
M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show,
and All in the Family. I will not attempt to analyze the carryover of their writing styles and comedic philosophies into the carefully-wrought world of Small Wonder. I could. But I won't.

It was one of the first sitcoms produced directly for syndication; none of the networks would pick it up (wonder why?) so the show was instead sold to a "consortium" of broadcasters. (I guess Norman Lear's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the first show to be sold in this way, but that wasn't exactly a sitcom; more of a satirical daily soap opera.) It did well enough that it encouraged other producers to sell their crummy shows directly to syndication, e.g. Al Burton dusting off his failure Charles in Charge and revamping it for syndication.

While I still think Charles in Charge was worse, I wouldn't argue very strongly with anyone who says Small Wonder was worse; after all, a kid coming home from school to watch a crappy syndicated sitcom could at least see Nicole Eggert on Charles in Charge, whereas all Small Wonder had was robotic Vicki and her evil robotic twin, Vanessa.

Finally, courtesy of Nexis, here's an article from Advertising Age, August 18, 1986, on attempts to create marketing tie-ins with Small Wonder:

"Toy store people love to see me coming." Mr. Pattison says. That was especially true early last year when as vp-marketing director, Metromedia Producers Corp., Los Angeles, he was charged with creating a marketing-promotion campaign for Metromedia's new first-run half-hour situation comedy "Small Wonder," which debuted last September. His first stop was the nearest F.A.O. Schwarz toy store.

"The little girl in the show is a robot and it sounded too gimmicky," Mr. Pattison says. "Then while I was in the store, I found a toy robot made in Japan with a tv screen face. It was perfect."

The battery-operated toy played a song and its face lit up with a picture of stars and planets. An idea clicked and, after taking the toy home, Mr. Pattison ripped the robot's head off. He replaced the celestial scene with Metromedia Producers Corp.'s logo and the show's title and put the robot back together. He returned to the store, purchased 500 more robots replaced the outer space scene with the logos, reprogramed the robots to play "Jingle Bells" and sent them on their way to tv station general managers last Christmas.

"We wanted to tweak the potential buyers of the show," Mr. Pattison says. "I thought the robot might give substance to something that wasn't there yet, since the show hadn't been cast. And it gave us a custom premium, which didn't cost that much."

...So for Mr. Pattison, the "Small Wonder" campaign didn't end with the Christmas delivery of robots.

A print campaign for trade magazines followed with a birth announcement that tread, "The Lawsons are proud to announce the birth of a beautiful baby robot," and the ad pictured the girl stepping out of a computer screen.

"The idea was to show hear as a cute girl, but show she's automated without the wires and diodes," Mr. Pattison says. "The other hope was to look Norman Lear-ish. 'Small Wonder' was the first of what is now many first-run situation comedies, and the illustration had to evoke network quality."


Anonymous said...

When I was seven years old, I only saw one episode of 'Small Wonder'. This show was mediocre that after watching only one episode, I changed the channel, went to the bathroom and started to vomit due to the horrendous acting. Can anyone tell me what the producers and directors were high?!

Cinemaniac Mark said...

I remember stumbling across the opening to this show when I was 12 or so, and thought it was a spoof of bad sitcoms. To my horror, it was all to real...