A most bizarre Presidential race commences in a time of utter world-weariness. Eleven-year old candidate Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay) has thrown his hat in, and a besmirched campaign manager is looking to benefit from this fiasco. Unbeknownst to those running his campaign, though, Oliver may actually have a chance at winning. A child as President of the United States of America? Well, stranger things have happened here in The Twilight Zone.
At the start of the episode “The Wunderkind,” protagonist Raff Hanks (John Cho) wakes up alone and strapped to a medical gurney. A disembodied voice asks the patient his name to assess if he’s oriented. The next question—”Do you know who the President is?”—evokes a series of memories that explains how Raff Hanks ended up in this state.
Five years earlier, Raff was in charge of getting President Stevens (John Larroquette) re-elected after a contentious first term. He was already celebrating Stevens‘ second-term win before the ballots were even counted. The campaign manager’s optimism then instantly drains from his body once the results trickle in. And with Stevens‘ loss comes the end of Raff Hanks‘ promising career. The following two years have been a disaster for the country’s economy and general welfare. So much that people are taking Oliver Foley‘s run for President seriously. Seeing this kid as a chance for vindication, Raff dries himself out and latches onto Oliver‘s campaign.
While it takes some convincing to get Oliver‘s parents to okay their son’s candidacy, they eventually cave to Raff‘s sweet talk. Oliver‘s mother’s name (Kimberley Sustad) is on the ballot, but as Raff puts it—her son will “be the one in charge.” This statement gets lost amid everything when it should really be a warning of things to come.
During Oliver‘s campaign, Raff reunites with a past associate Maura (Allison Tolman). She’s wary of this whole matter, but she feels guilty for writing her former colleague off after the Stevens loss. Meanwhile, Oliver continues to wow his constituents with palpable if not bread-and-butter promises (i.e., less war, free video games for every American, dogs for dog people and cats for cat people). Though seeing the young candidate act like a brat at the mere mention of a doctor’s appointment reminds Raff that Oliver, at the end of the day, is still a child.
In spite of a devastating debate which reaffirms how unfit Oliver would be as President, the boy wins everyone back with a tearjerking tribute to his dying dog Homer. The collective outpouring of sympathy cements young Foley‘s win, but Raff isn’t anywhere as happy as he expected to be. Raff realizes he’s made a grave error in judgment—in essence, he’s unleashed a monster upon the public.
“The Wunderkind” taps into the segment of society so jaded and wronged by today’s state of government that they’re willing to take a chance on a dark horse. John Cho’s character highlights the precarious sentiment of inexperienced politicians taking office by saying, “This country is very open to leaders without political baggage.” Throughout the episode, random characters chime in on the notion and launch their support of Oliver Foley. As with any election, likability is a key factor, and the boy has it in spades.
It would be amiss to not bring up the underlying metaphor in the episode—children as Internet celebrities. Oliver Foley is a YouTube sensation clocking millions of views. He traffics even more with his political music video where he sings, “Young enough to hope, old enough to vote.” Oliver represents the trend of tykes being pushed into the limelight by their parents, whose need to vicariously live through their offspring overcomes all else. So “The Wunderkind” seems like a missed opportunity to speak on the downsides of un-vetted nobodies becoming online personalities and influencers. Instead, we’re subjected to a pedestrian parable of electing celebrity politicians.
The original Twilight Zone series was progressive and willing to tackle societal issues that were not being talked about at the time of its original airing. To this day, Rod Serling’s ingenuity inspires other storytellers in their creative endeavors. Many aspirants of socio-conscious, genre-making narratives nowadays, however, lack the same aptitude. “The Wunderkind” falls into the category of being so sharp that its satirical sensibilities fall with a thudding mic drop. Yet what it has to say isn’t particularly taboo. Anyone who watches the news or scrolls through their timeline knows what’s going on. In all openness, a lot of people would agree we’re already living in The Twilight Zone.
Good performances aside, “The Wunderkind” is inert storytelling with nothing too radical to say. It belabors a lukewarm take that’s been screamed into the universe countless times these past two years. It’s a parody we didn’t ask for, and it’s not one that’s going to change any stubborn minds either. In the end, it doesn’t leave you feeling as if you’ve learned anything. It’s only a painful, on-the-nose reminder of the current state of affairs.
Like in previous episodes, “The Wunderkind” has some easter eggs! Did you catch them? Here are just a few:
- Whipple News is named after the company from the classic episode “The Brain Center at Whipple’s.” Whipple is also the brand of the MP3 player seen in “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and the camcorder in “Replay.”
- The bar Raff drinks at looks like the one inside the comedy club in “The Comedian.” Although this may be more of a matter of the crew repurposing the same set.
- Oliver has a cup from the Busy Bee Diner. Busy Bee Diner—named after the Busy Bee Cafe in “Nick of Time“—is the restaurant the characters eat at in “Replay.”
- A magazine featuring Oliver on the cover was seen in the second episode.
- The shot of the cornfield could be a reference to “It’s a Good Life,” an episode that “The Wunderkind” shares some similarities with.