Small Wonder: A Child Unlike Other Girls!
It was a lazy Sunday, and I was glancing at the channel listings. And as is often the case, I was treated to the usual – lots of terrible reality stuff, a thousand sports shows, and movies that I enjoy but seem to air all the damned time. I mean, I love Die Hard as much as anybody, but I’m not sure that it needs to be always airing on some channel on my cable listings at some point every weekend. On that note, I’ve never seen White Chicks, and no matter how many times I see it listed, I’m not switching over to that channel. Like, ever.
This particular Sunday, however, I found something altogether unexpected. Somewhere in the high-reaches of the Standard Definition-only channels, where I rarely lurk around, was a network called “Antenna TV”. I’d never noticed this channel in the listing, but I was immediately intrigued by what was currently airing: Small Wonder. I thought for sure that this was just some new reality TV about some dwarf who’d overcome life’s obstacles, but it turned out to be what I was hoping for: an episode of a sitcom from the mid-1980s that I adored as a child.
For those who don’t remember, Small Wonder was a show premised on a robotics engineer whose greatest experiment was a lifelike human girl android, which he attempted to keep a secret to everyone other than his own family. The girl’s name was pronounced “Vicki”, which was actually V.I.C.I. (Voice Input Child Identicant.) She was programmed to grow and mature like a regular girl, because the producers of the series weren’t inhumane enough to supply actress Tiffany Brissette the hormones it might have taken to stunt her growth for the run of the series.
Android kids were a big deal in the ’80s. While Small Wonder was airing in prime time, D.A.R.Y.L. was in movie theaters and Disney was adapting the “Not Quite Human” series of books into a series of TV movies starring Alan Thicke. When I was twelve years old, I was confident that within a few years there would be lifelike robot kids running amok all over the world thanks to this phenomenon. I can’t prove that I wasn’t wrong, though. I may have met a few kids who were just as robotic as VICI was, although that was usually explained away as falling somewhere on the autism spectrum.
This particular episode was a first-season episode called “The Bully”. The human kid from the series, Jamie, is trying to become the President of his “Fearless Five Club”, a typical He-man Woman Hater’s Club that every prepubescent boy belongs to at some point. The playhouse is in his yard, and his mom provides the best cookies, so he’s a shoo-in for the win. One, problem, though: Just as he’s about to lock up the victory, a true travesty of the democratic system occurs when a bully named Ernie (played by Bobby Jacoby, one of those Jacoby boys who were always the obnoxious sidekicks or bullies in pretty much every 80s movie or TV show whenever Jason Hervey or William Zabka was booked for something else) shows up and declares himself President, despite not having a membership in the club. Pretty much every 80s sitcom featuring kids featured an episode about a bully. Arnold Jackson was constantly threatened by the never-seen “The Gooch” on Diff’rent Strokes, Ricky Stratton enlisted help from Mr. T to thwart “Ox” on Silver Spoons, and Punky Brewster got fighting advice from “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler when confronted by “Moose”. You can tell Ernie’s the resident bully on this show, because he wears a tough denim jacket and has a red streak dyed in his hair. He declares himself dictator of the group and extorts Jamie and the gang into paying him a dollar a day. When Jamie refuses, he gets a black eye for his efforts. But once he figures out his robot sister has the strength of 20 men, he gets her to even the score with Ernie. Ernie pays Jamie back the money he extorted from the other kids, and all is well in the world. And through all of this, we all learn a valuable lesson: if you’re ever threatened by a bully, you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. You should get your robot sibling to bail you out.
This was pretty much par for the course for an episode of this show. Ridiculous, unbelievable, and completely devoid of any artistic merit whatsoever. The bully aspect didn’t quite make this a “very special” episode, but this show tried to play all the angles when it came to teaching kids valuable life lessons. Jamie and his friend Reggie were caught smoking in one episode. Vicki got taught to shoplift in another. Jamie befriends a deaf boy in one episode and learns a life lesson about sensitivity. Jamie and his mother stage a play to create awareness about leukemia in another episode. And Jamie gets busted using Vicki to help him make the honor roll at school. Jesse “The Body” Ventura even shows up in one episode.
None of the stars of this show really wound up becoming the stars of the future. Dick Christie, who played Jamie’s dad Ted, did some additional B-level TV work and recurring Soap Opera acting. Marla Pennington, who played mom Joan, retired from acting after this series wrapped, presumably out of shame. Vicki was played by Tiffany Brissette, who left acting to become a nurse shortly afterward, and Jerry Supiran, who played Jamie, was last reported to be homeless and living under a bridge in California, blaming his sad life trajectory on a stripper he dated as a teenager. The most recognizable faces belong to the obnoxious neighbors, Bonnie and Brandon Brindle, played by Edie McClurg and William Bogert, respectively.
As much as part of me would love to go back and watch the entire series run as a nostalgia-craving adult, I think that catching an episode every now and again on TV is enough to whet my appetite. I can’t say I recommend you watch it, but I’ve managed to find the “Bully” episode online and have provided a link for those of you inclined to do so. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.