Weekend television was plenty weird in the ’80s, especially because of sitcoms like Small Wonder, which premiered on September 7, 1985. The show centered around a child robot named Vicki (Tiffany Brissette)—in reality, V.I.C.I., which stood for Voice Input Child Identicant—who was created by Ted Lawson (Dick Christie) and brought home from his work to live with the rest of the family, including his wife, Joan (Marla Pennington), and son Jamie (Jerry Supiran). Brissette was known for her frilly, maid-like dress and for speaking in a creepy monotone voice, which quickly grew grating, and the literal way in which she interpreted everything. (Plus, Vicki lived/slept in a cabinet in Jamie’s room, which was just wrong.)
The show was part of a mid-decade trend toward syndicating original first-run series, which tended to be cheaper to produce and also far less expensive to air than hit network sitcoms. Unsurprisingly, the low price tag per Small Wonder episode—roughly $300,000, according to a recent Mental Floss article on the show—didn’t do the sitcom any favors: It looked and felt low-budget, and leaned heavily on clichéd ’80s TV tropes and cheesy special effects. Flimsy plots focused on the Lawsons trying to keep Vicki’s robotic nature hidden, as well as how they dealt with tired sitcom situations (e.g., bullying, smoking, societal issues like homelessness).
According to the Mental Floss article, Brissette felt constrained by Vicki’s rigid character. “Tiffany was extraordinarily talented, but playing the role that well was a double-edged sword,” said Emily Webster, who played neighbor kid Harriet Brindle. “She wasn’t able to show any range.” She wasn’t the only one in this position: Veteran writers such as Mel Sherer, whose c.v. included stints on Happy Days and Laverne And Shirley, also were frustrated. “The good news was, it was the easiest schedule I’ve ever had on a sitcom,” Sherer said. “We were always done by 5:30. But it was just so obviously not good that there was no way of fixing it. The ratings confounded us. But it was the way Howard wanted it.”
“Howard” was Small Wonder’s creator, Howard Leeds, who had previously co-created well-respected shows like Silver Spoons and The Facts Of Life, and appeared to be the catalyst for this rigidity. But his stubbornness paid off: Although Small Wonder was a so-bad-it’s-good endeavor, it ran for four seasons, and was hugely popular in Italy, France, India, and Brazil. It’s also still in reruns on the Antenna TV network, and has a robust YouTube presence.
Supiran received notoriety a few years ago due to his massive financial woes and homelessness. Brissette retired from acting in the early ’90s and became a nurse, although she posed for Details in 2007 wearing an adult-sized version of her Small Wonder frock. Her time in the trenches as Vicki lives on in perpetuity, however. Relive that time below with a few choice episodes.