We’re five episodes into the 2019 reboot of The Twilight Zone, and it still feels like the show is trying to find its feet. What’s becoming clear are certain commonalities showing what’s holding this show back from truly singing. So far all the episodes have been overlong and/or overly telegraph-y with their deeper meaning. Last week’s “A. Traveler” was a welcome break away from the latter weakness, while this week’s “The Wunderkind” is nearly sunk by this problem.
Raff Hanks (John Cho) is a political campaign manager with an inflated sense of his own ability. After being blindsided by a landslide election defeat, Raff is brought to a personal and professional low, and he’s driven to the bottle as a way to cope. While drowning his sorrows at the local bar, a young vlogger with political aspirations is brought to his attention.
The 11-year-old Oliver (Jacob Tremblay) has gone viral for a video announcing his presidential bid, where he promised policies such as “free video games”, “no more war,” and “equality for everyone except his little sister.” Raff is inspired by Oliver’s preternatural ability to connect with people through his videos, but he also sees an opportunity for fame and fortune. Raff sobers up, regains his excessive optimism, and sets out to turn the wonder child into a genuine presidential candidate.
This first thing you should know about “The Wunderkind” is that it doesn’t have much to offer in terms of scariness, dread, or even basic dramatic tension. The story is so straightforward that the writers felt the need to plaster on a gratuitous framing device just to remind the audience that The Twilight Zone isn’t a sitcom. And like a mid-grade CBS sitcom, there isn’t much on display here besides the strength of the performances.
John Cho does a keen job portraying the manic energy of an unrepentant go-getter. His role reminds me of the movie Election, but if Mr. McAllister and Tracy Flick were the same person. Raff has both the warped overconfidence to commit to an idea as ridiculous as getting an elementary schooler elected president, and the jaded savviness of a good salesman, while Cho is a talented enough actor to show all the shades in between.
If only this overlong episode had reallocated some time to fleshing out Raff and his backstory. A connection between Raff and Oliver is alluded to early in the episode (they’re both “wunderkinds”), but never expanded upon. To be frank, though, that describes all the ideas in this episode.
Your tolerance for Jacob Tremblay acting precociously will probably be what determines your enjoyment of this episode. If the seeing Jacob Tremblay gesticulate like Donald Trump or sing and dance to a Disney Channel-style campaign song isn’t something you’d find amusing, then you should probably steer clear of this whole joint. I, for one, was laughing pretty consistently through Tremblay’s scenes, and found them to be the highlight.
But my main criticism (besides this episode not feeling at all like The Twilight Zone, not even by the standards of the new reboot) lies with “The Wunderkind” being so forehead-slappingly obvious in its message and presentation that it would work better as an opening monologue for Jimmy Fallon than as a 45 minute drama. The core premise of “How ridiculous would it be if a capricious child ran for president?” plays out without any nuance or complexity, making it pretty clear that there’s a specific person the show wants to lampoon. (Hint: I’ve already mentioned his name in this review.)
Both “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and “Replay” were similarly blatant in their messaging, but “The Wunderkind” takes this show to a whole new level of trite. The observation that President Trump is a spoiled brat is one that’s been made a million times in a million different formats already. I’m looking for something a little fresher from the TV shows I watch, and especially from the social commentary standards that The Twilight Zone is known for.