Big Love, Small Wonder: Another Adorable Robot Coming to TV?

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 18 2011 5:09 PM

Big Love, Small Wonder: Another Adorable Robot Coming to TV? 

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A humanoid robot built by Japan's Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Tokyo, October 17, 2010.

Photo by YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Yesterday brought the very strange news that the creators of Big Love, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, are developing a new show for HBO “about an interracial family and their humanoid robot.” This being not just television but HBO, the series requires broader sociological resonance, of course. And so Olsen and Scheffer’s show, which currently has the unfortunate title China Doll, will somehow be “about China, Chinese Americans, robots, the effect of technology on our lives and the China moment in American consciousness.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

The husband in this interracial family, it turns out, is “a successful California construction subcontractor”; his Asian-American wife is a university professor. The show concerns this couple—and a robot—and their efforts to “straddle both sides of the Pacific with extended families on two continents.”

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I wasn’t the only person to think immediately of high-concept sitcom Small Wonder upon hearing the news. In case you missed that gem from the 1980s, it was also about a family with a humanoid robot. The husband, Ted Lawson, was an engineer and inventor who worked for “United Robotronics,” and, “in an effort to assist handicapped children,” he created a “Voice Input Child Identicant,” or V.I.C.I., aka “Vicki.”

Lawson brought Vicki home, and hilarity—well, it didn’t really ensue, actually: A writer at the comedy website Splitsider, in an uncannily well-timed piece about Small Wonder (and other “terrible syndicated sitcomes from the 1980s”), has just revisited the show, and declared it “unwatchable.” Nonetheless, if you’re curious—or deeply nostalgic—you can watch entire episodes on YouTube.

And if you’re wondering how the show ran for four years with a single child actress playing a robot—that is, something that doesn’t age biologically—Wikipedia provides the answer:

To explain child actress Tiffany Brissette’s aging during the show, Ted gave V.I.C.I. an upgrade in the series’ third season. He aged her face, dressed her in modern clothes, and allowed her to eat and drink. The food passed through her naturally and the drink cooled her internal system.

Of course. Anyway, Small Wonder may not have been funny, but, if you were reading Slate last month, you know it was ahead of its time: Nowadays, robots really are on their way.