As far as the people who write movies and television are concerned, all children are either six or sixteen. The characters’ actual ages don’t matter. If they’re kids, they’re either precociously hip quasi-adults, or tantrum-throwing toddlers… and in either case, they boast less primary education than a real world first-grader.
Witness Oliver Foley, the 11-year-old presidential candidate played by Jacob Tremblay in the latest Twilight Zone, “The Wunderkind.” Has anybody involved in this episode ever met an actual 11-year-old? Kids that age are in 5th or 6th grade. They’re doing basic algebra, studying economics and civics, reading Jack London and C.S. Lewis. Oliver, meanwhile, rides around on a tricycle, says that he wants all Americans to have access to free video games, and when his mother tries to take him to the doctor for a checkup, he stomps his feet, covers his ears, and yells “I hate you I hate you I hate you,” like a… well, not even a six-year-old, frankly. He’s too immature even for that.
The Twilight Zone isn’t supposed to be “realistic,” granted. But there’s a lot about “The Wunderkind” that feels way, way off—even beyond its basic misunderstanding of what children are like.
John Cho stars as Raff Hanks, a rockstar political consultant who at the start of the episode is certain he’s just gotten one of the least popular presidents in American history reelected. When his candidate actually loses, Hanks falls into a personal and professional tailspin. What did he do in the first place that was supposed to be so great? Why didn’t it work? Why would his failure be perceived as catastrophic, given that his candidate was such a loser? (And why would The Twilight Zone cast the amazing John Larroquette as the president and then only put him in one scene?)
None of this seems to be of any concern to this episode’s credited writer Andrew Guest. Nor does “The Wunderkind” get any wonkier once Raff pulls himself out of the gutter and finds his next cause: the popular YouTuber Oliver, who’s racked up tens of millions of views for his sweet, sunny presidential campaign video. The consultant’s big idea is that Oliver’s mother should be the official candidate on the ticket, but that the public will know all along that this happy little kid giving speeches about being nicer to people is the one who’ll really be running things.
Beyond that paperwork loophole, do we see any evidence that Raff Hanks is some kind of political genius? We do not. Instead, we see him almost derail Oliver’s candidacy by leaving him under-prepared for an Iowa caucus debate; and then we see him pull the kid out of his polling skid by having him post a heartwarming YouTube video about his dying dog. This is apparently more than enough to send Oliver to the Oval Office.
Once President Foley is in charge—about halfway through the 40-minute episode—“The Wunderkind” can finally get to what it’s really meant to be about. What would it be like to have an 11-year-old running everything?
That’s not a bad “what if” kind of question. But given that the preceding 20 minutes half-asses the particulars of how a supposedly bright politico gets an unqualified youngster elected, there’s no reason to expect any sharper insight in the second half about what an adolescent president would do. Sure enough, the specifics of the Foley administration are kept fairly foggy. The prez puts penguins on the White House lawn, and demands that the country ban “all old doctors” (setting up the episode’s all-too-predictable stinger). He also orders that someone figure out how to keep his campaign promise that everyone should get free video games. But that’s about it.
“The Wunderkind” moves briskly and is well-acted, especially by Cho. It’s also good to see Alison Tolman, who plays Hanks’ colleague Maura McGill (even though her character doesn’t get to do much besides be the person who stands next to the hero while he’s thinking aloud.) But there’s a fleeting instant when it seems like this episode’s going to develop some real bite, and then it just… doesn’t.
That moment comes when Oliver first arrives in his new office, and starts talking about bypassing the U.S. Congress to put pressure on video game manufacturers via levies. Has been secretly brilliant all along? Did he just seem implausibly childish in those introductory scenes? Alas, we’ll never know, because the story never goes any further with this idea. Oliver becomes more capricious, but otherwise his temperament and intellect remain unchanged. And never again does “The Wunderkind” raise the issues of how President Foley actually gets people to do what he wants, given that—in theory, at least—he has no actual power
Look, I get what this episode is actually about. It’s a broad satire of the American public’s infatuation with political “outsiders,” and the corollary distrust of any people who actually know the hell they’re doing. Any similarity between the petulant, immature, know-nothing president in “The Wunderkind”—who communicates directly with his constituents via vlog, by the way—and the current occupant of the White House? Obviously intentional. Too obviously.
But none of this is all that incisive, especially when compared to the corrosively pessimistic HBO political satire Veep—or even when compared with Comedy Central’s The Other Two, which is so much smarter about the current reality of social media influencers and the people who flock around them. Instead, this episode is like a 40-minute version, “Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.” It’s as slick, as simple, and as annoyingly vague as a stump speech.
- By the way, I’m not saying that 11-year-olds don’t behave like little shits. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of adolescents acting obnoxious toward adults in public places. (I know I have. I’m pretty sure I was one of those teen brats, way back when.) But that kind of snottiness isn’t really what Oliver’s displaying here, even though that’d be far more age-appropriate than his hissy fits. Instead, he just reads as “child.” The character hasn’t been fleshed out.
- This episode was directed by Richard Shepard, who’s responsible for the very good movies The Matador and Don Hemingway, as well as the upcoming Netflix film The Perfection. Watch those, not “The Wunderkind.”
- Want some better pop culture about underaged presidents? The 1968 “head movie” Wild In The Streets is a cult classic for a reason: Its depiction of a hippie youth revolution, carried through to its ultimate conclusion, is at once wonderfully weird and surprisingly cutting. The short-lived early 1970s DC Comics character “Prez” has also been part of some surreal and pointed stories, including a 2015 miniseries. Watch (and read) those, not “The Wunderkind.”
- The most obvious older Twilight Zone to compare to this one to is “It’s a Good Life,” with its disturbing tale of an all-powerful grade-schooler, wielding cruel power over a small town. But there’s also a touch of “Eye Of The Beholder” in the “twist” ending reveal of the child surgeon, getting ready to cut into Raff. Two classics, those episodes. Watch those, not… well, you get the point.