Smart House (written by Stu Krieger and William Hudson, directed by LeVar Burton, produced by Alan Sacks) is one DCOM that truly defines the legacy of the brand. I believe I’ve read most articles analyzing the technology of the movie. They all discuss how much of the film’s artificial intelligence has become our reality 15 or 20 years after Smart House premiered. There’s a reason we talk about this movie so much. I think it’s because we were so intrigued by the wonders of the house and its virtual mother, PAT (Personal Applied Technology). We immediately loved Ryan Merriman in his first DCOM outing. As Ben Cooper, Merriman nails the stoicism but also reveals emotional depth. Ben and his sister Angie (Katie Volding) live with their father, Nick (Kevin Kilner), as their mother has passed away. Ben is a 13-year-old Mr. Mom, constantly taking care of his dad and sister so that their family unit doesn’t change anymore. He specifically doesn’t want his dad to date or remarry. Ben thinks his dream is coming true when he wins a smart home for his family.
PAT seems so cool at first, providing endless smoothies, information, and entertainment to the Coopers. The living room walls transform to offer safari atmospheres and ocean views. Similarly, Ben and Angie can relax in their rooms with music videos or basketball games playing on the walls (Angie jumping on the bed to the tune of “C’est La Vie” is the best). But Ben becomes increasingly upset when Nick is interested in Sara Barnes, the Smart House creator. Sara is delightfully quirky and knows everything about the home’s artificial intelligence that she programmed. Well, almost everything.
In the most poignant scene, Ben watches an old home video of his mother in the kitchen with him and Angie when they were young, singing “Hush Little Baby.” As he relives this moment, Ben begins to cry, and even a machine like PAT understands that he is sad. The action of the movie builds with interconnected emotional complexities for Ben, and technological complications for PAT. Becoming more severe about his father’s dating life, Ben sneaks into the control center and programs PAT to be more like sitcom moms of the 1950s and ’60s. As nostalgic as this movie is for millennials, it’s fun to remember that a dose of nostalgia was slipped in for the parents in ’99. The titles Ben instructs PAT to review are smart parodies of real sitcoms: Mother Knows Best instead of Father Knows Best (1954-1960); My Three Moms instead of My Three Sons (1960-1972); Make Room for Momma instead of Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1965); and Noah’s MatriARK instead of Noah’s Ark (1956-1957). “These ladies will teach you everything a virtual mother needs to know,” Ben tells PAT.
PAT listens a little too closely. She transforms into an extreme caricature of an old-fashioned housewife, giving Ben a cold steak to nurse his wound after a bully hurts him. PAT imposes stricter rules on the entire family, too. Angie has to take a sweater to school when it’s not cold, Ben must pull up his shorts, Nick can’t place a personal call until he has finished his work for the day. Thankfully, in the midst of tightening her regime, PAT recognizes that the Cooper family could use some good clean fun. She learns from the Music Party Channel (stylized to look like MTV) that “young people” like to dance and let loose. This is why we get Ben’s iconic party scene where he and his friends pull out their boy band moves for “Slam Dunk (Da Funk)” by Five. The girls are invited, including Ben’s adorable crush, Gwen. These dance moves continue to impress me. PAT also schools Ben’s’ bully and sends him running for the hills.
As my fellow DCOM enthusiasts certainly remember, PAT gets out of hand with her mothering and reaches a crescendo at the end of Smart House. She’s been merely a voice for the majority of the film, but Katey Sagal finally brings PAT to life as a frightening June Cleaver-esque hologram gone wrong. She swirls like a tornado, multiplies herself, and creates a dangerous environment for the Coopers. Ben and Sara team up to restore order to the household, and PAT returns to her role as a manageable technological feature in the closing scene. What I love about Smart House is its oddly comforting quality. PAT should have terrified me growing up — and she certainly became scary — but more than anything, I quickly knew that I had found a movie I loved. My whole family loved watching this one with me. It inspired imagination about the future, all while becoming such a core part of my past. Hearing the song “Jump, jump, the house is jumpin'” just makes me happy, no matter how many times I’ve heard it.