This The Twilight Zone review contains spoilers.
Remember the sense of dread and powerlessness The Twilight Zone audience felt after watching “It’s a Good Life,” the classic episode in which six-year-old Anthony Fremont sends his enemies into a cornfield of oblivion with the power of his mind? “Wunderkind” seemed to want to pay homage to that earlier story but failed to achieve even half of that level of horror at seeing the cruelty of a spoiled child who rose to the rank of President of the United States on a wave of public outcry for anything other than politics as usual. Can viewers suspend their disbelief to overlook the Constitutional rule that requires a presidential candidate to be 35 years of age or older in the same way that they wink and nod at whatever subtle supernatural twist The Twilight Zone typically relies on, purely in the name of Donald Trump satire?
It was particularly cruel of The Twilight Zone to tease us with a mysterious present for John Cho’s character, the titular wunderkind and campaign manager extraordinaire, Raff Hanks, while using flashbacks to tell the full story. Essentially, we spent the entire episode hoping for a payoff to the strange, brightly lit hospital room in which Raff expresses his regrets as he lies bleeding and waiting for a doctor, something to explain the ridiculous premise that unfolded without anyone batting an eye or displaying that telltale knitted brow that let us know that they suspected that they had taken a detour into the fifth dimension. Ending with the child doctor who wanted to get back to his video games was a huge disappointment, a silly callback to an earlier aversion to older doctors.
Presenting a satire on the public’s cynical view of politics, the unusual role of public opinion, and the dangerous power of social media seems more like Black Mirror’s territory, somewhere in the realm of “The Waldo Moment” or “The National Anthem.” Jordan Peele tells us at the end of the episode, “Razzle and dazzle people with the right lies, and eventually they’ll go blind to the madness right in front of their faces.” Yes, we get it: Donald Trump lies a lot and acts like a spoiled child much of the time on social media. Can we get back to the story now? Maybe something a little more compelling than the failures and redemptions of an opportunistic, manipulative PR guy?
Plus Oliver never lied! Well, there was the time he pretended his dog was dying to get Raff back on his campaign staff, but that enjoyable deception was here and gone in a blink, sadly. Obviously the story leans heavily into the innocence and optimism of youth and how we all can be taken in by appearances and underestimate the power of corruption (or outright childish bullying). But characterizing the absence of any checks and balances as a spooky Twilight Zone-esque version of our own reality just doesn’t work. “Wunderkind” instead comes across as a sometimes amusing but mostly painful parody rather than as savvy political commentary.
The campaign trail itself did offer some amusing moments, thankfully. With Jacob Tremblay being familiar to many from his role in Wonder, his portrayal of Oliver as a Fortnite vlogger who managed to garner an audience with his promises of free video games and longer vacations was authentic and believable. The “listicle” video of ten campaign promises was equally effective with Oliver’s pledge to ensure fewer Star Wars movies and less war, which speaks to our short attention span and susceptibility to empty platitudes, even though Oliver sincerely planned on delivering on everything he said. Like in “The Comedian,” the commentary about the role of social media in our lives was a background note that was more effective perhaps than the main story or its themes.
Where “Wunderkind” dips into parody is with its contrast between clearly over the top scenes such as Oliver calling for his mommy during a presidential debate and more down to earth scenes in which Raff works with fellow political operative Maura, played almost with blasé indifference by Fargo’s Allison Tolman. When Raff is hitting the bottle after the disastrous debate, he tells Maura he actually believed in Oliver, saying, “He was human. He was vulnerable, and that’s more than I can say about everybody else up there.” An episode which mixes dramatic lighting and trigger-happy Secret Service agents with humanizing moments like this comes across as The Twilight Zone having an identity crisis.
Even Raff’s up-and-down journey as a wunderkind seems overly simplistic both during his cataclysmic failure with incumbent president Stevens’ reelection and his double redemption with Oliver. Whether he’s drinking bourbon or chamomile tea, he garners little sympathy from the audience because his extreme change in status plays on the cliches of dejection and hubris. There are simply too many things about his plan, like using Oliver’s parents names on the ballot, that have their illogical nature waved away as if to say, “This is The Twilight Zone! Things are wacky and off kilter!” Yeah, okay, but you still have to have the narrative unfold in a way that creeps us out with its believability, even when sci-fi elements are at play, which here they’re clearly not.
When the chief of staff tells Oliver, “I’m not sure vlogging is the best way to communicate,” the reference to Donald Trump and his beloved Twitter feed is clear, but while it’s certainly acceptable to update a series that has social commentary at its core just like a huge swath of science fiction literature does, we still have certain expectations of The Twilight Zone that “Wunderkind” simply doesn’t fit into. It’s almost as though, with episodes like this and “Replay” before it, CBS All Access decided to pull in elements of Black Mirror’s messaging — without the benefit of futuristic technology — while ignoring the eeriness and unsettling drama of the original The Twilight Zone.
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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter (@mikescifi). He co-hosts our Sci Fi Fidelity podcast and voices much of our video content.