Small Wonder: One of the Weirdest Shows of the 1980s

James Logie
Image via YouTube

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

Small Wonder was rare for a sitcom in that it ran on Saturdays. This made it easy for it to find a young market.

Despite being a funny show, there was a lot of interesting development behind it. It was tough on the child star who played Vicki, and maybe wasn’t that appropriate for kids.

Some loved it, and some thought it was the worst show ever. Here’s the story of Small Wonder: The very first A.I.

The Premise of Small Wonder

They based the show around a child robot named V.I.C.I., or Voice Input Child Indenticant.

Vicki is an android of a 10-year old girl and was built by Ted Lawson. He was an engineer/inventor for the fictional United Robotronics.

Vicki was created as a way to assist handicap children and Ted brings her home so she can mature and learn about a family environment.

Vicki 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.

She speaks in a monotone robotic voice and has the ability to elongate her neck like Inspector Gadget. A few more of her abilities include:

  • She can shrink down to the size of a doll
  • She can grow to ten feet tall
  • She could channel electricity through her hands 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.

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--especially from their neighbors the Brindles.

The Technical Difficulties of Small Wonder

Because Vicki was basically like Iron Man, the show required 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 shots would be when Vicki’s head would spin around. Another example is her strength like when she would lift an entire couch with one arm to vacuum under it.

The show had to devote all of Thursday mornings to set up and record these shots. This put a damper on the shooting schedule as sitcoms didn't have these technical issues to worry about.

Most of the special effects shots would just be of Vicki so they didn't have to bring in the other cast members.

Problems With the Cast

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 issues on set.

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 were used.

The parents didn't get along at all, and even though the kids did; the parents created all the unnecessary tension on set.

They would clash with each other and the older cast members remarked that the parents acted like they were the stars.

The adult cast members also weren't exactly sure what kind of show they were making. They were aware it was a kids show but it also featured a lot of innuendoes.

Marla Pennington, who played mother Joan, saw it as not their best work but quite simply a paying job.

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

Despite playing a robotic character, Tiffany Brissette was actually a multi-talented actor. She could sing, dance, do gymnastics, play instruments, ride a horse, etc.

She had even been up for the role of Punky Brewster. She was picked out of 400 different girls for the role of VICKI but would be stuck in that character for the whole show.

She seemed to get frustrated in this role, with the same outfit, and couldn’t show off any of her real abilities. She had to give monotone performances, but bite her cheek from laughing at any of the other lines.

Brissette's mother also caused issues backstage and pushed more for her daughter and her abilities.

She also had to do all the technical shots by herself which took a lot of time, and trial and error. Brissette would later leave show business and go on to become a nurse in Boulder, Colorado.

The Impact of Small Wonder

Small Wonder was a pretty big hit. It was geared towards younger viewers and the show found them because it was on Saturday mornings.

This 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 debuted on September 7, 1985. They did four seasons covering 96 episodes and the ratings were pretty solid over the four years.

Over the seasons, they averaged 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 means it started out as a syndicated show which is kind of like going direct to video.

Studios did this 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) which was pretty evident in the low-budget appearance of the show.

Not to mention the poor special effects. But this was 1985 and technical innovations were limited.

Besides North America, Small Wonder was a huge hit in Italy, France, India, and Brazil. It was dubbed into 52 different languages.

In a lot of countries, it was called “Super Vicki." The actors became become quite popular and would get mobbed the odd time while out in public. It was loved by children and even senior citizens.

Final Thoughts

Small Wonder followed the usual run-of-the-mill sitcom tropes, but was definitely 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 this made it impossible for it to not make money due to its low cost.

Small Wonder was an easy route to quick earnings 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.

Small Wonder had its moment and many still remember it fondly. This is really all you can ask for when you want to make an impact on pop culture.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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