CBS’s The Twilight Zone
Season 1, Episode 5: “The Wunderkind”
Directed by Richard Shepard
Written by Andrew Guest
* For a recap & review of the previous episode, “A Traveller” – click here
* For a recap & review of the next episode, “Six Degrees of Freedom” – click here
Raff Hanks (John Cho) wakes on a table. He has no idea where he’s been brought while unconscious. Someone asks him questions.
Like: “Do you know who the President is?”
We jump back to five years prior.
Raff’s working on the campaign for President of the United States of America, James Stevens (John Larroquette), along with his friend Maura McGill (Allison Tolman). They’re waiting on election results. Raff assumes they’ve won. Despite Stevens being “the most unpopular President in American history.” Raff’s riding a high with his book, The Wunderkind, on shelves, and the campaign poised to make big waves.
They see the numbers aren’t coming in big. At all. They’re slowly losing all the states they’d previously won, and it’s driving President Stevens mad. Looks like Mr. Hanks won’t be riding the wave after all.
Skip ahead a couple years and the new POTUS is as shit as the last, maybe worse. Raff is hanging off the edge of a bar, drinking away his sorrows. Then there’s YouTube star Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay) announcing his candidacy for President. He wants people to be “nice to each other.” He’s running on a campaign of heart and minds. Is it so far fetched? Drumpf is sitting in the White House and he’s a literal moron. Celebrities are always flirting with running. Dwayne Johnson’s considered laying the Smackdown on voters. Only a matter of time before Logan Paul throws his dumbfuck hat into the ring.
The kid appeals to regular folks because he “tells it like it is,” yknow? How often do we hear that? People are so desperate to find anybody to take them out of a slump, just like today in America, they’re willing to latch onto anybody. Like our Narrator (Jordan Peele) suggests, redemption doesn’t always take us to a good place. Sometimes it leads us directly through the Twilight Zone.
Raff cleans himself up, and gets sober, at least for the day, then goes to meet Oliver and his family. The parents— Helen (Kimberley Sustad) and Joseph (Lane Edwards)— don’t think any of it’s a good idea, particularly that they’ll be on the ballot as a technicality whereas their son would be actually calling the shots. They also know who Raff is and think he’s running a game. The political adviser suggests a leader “without political baggage” is precisely what Americans are craving.
The campaign starts and Oliver’s promising a bunch of interesting things, from “less Star Wars movies” (bless your heart, kid!) to longer holidays, better jobs. Everything’s going well. Maura’s soon on the new campaign again with her old friend Raff, too.
They’ve got Oliver playing Lil Bieber in a rap video. He’s appealing to all the young people, just like every other demographic. But Oliver’s still a kid. He gets into arguments with his parents and storms off. He doesn’t want to go to the doctor. Yet Raff’s convinced a little boy has the temperament to be the President of the United States of America. People love the kid, from millennial voters to the Boomers.
People do know it’s a “side show.” Oliver’s being prepped for debate and Raff wants to convince him, like he’s convinced himself, that being honest about knowing less will appeal to voters. Who needs a POTUS that actually knows things? That goes poorly when the debate airs. Oliver stumbles over questions about taxes and everybody’s laughing at him. A public humiliation. And Raff’s just as humiliated.
“This is the American Dream”
The campaign’s shit the bed. Raff is back in the bar drinking himself towards the grave. He gets a visit from Maura. He says he started to believe in the kid. He wishes they could’ve stuck to doing YouTube videos rather than campaigning regularly. That would’ve appealed to the dumb voters they hopws to reach. Hearing about Oliver’s dying dog makes Raff think they could turn the campaign around with a clip about Homer the Labradoodle. Oliver and his family do a sweet little video, during which he speaks to the simplest, most primitive emotions in people.
Easy way to win votes, no? Apparently in America, yes.
Now that Oliver’s POTUS he wants to keep all his campaign promises. He orders that everybody in America get their video games. Already the power is flowing through him. He’s ordering his staff around with an iron fist, threatening to fire and replace them should things not go his way. Lots of changes at the White House, such as penguins on the lawn, a popcorn maker in the Oval Office, games to play, and other fun stuff.
What happens when President Foley doesn’t want to go to the doctor? Not as easy as when he was just Oliver, a normal kid. He declares “no old doctors” be put into law. He’d rather “fire Congress” than deal with them, too.
When Raff brings up potential problems with President Foley’s childish behaviour, he’s looked at with suspicion. The word “treason” comes up. He gets no help from the parents, either. They love how things are going, and, of course, America loves their video games! Suddenly, this new America under a child POTUS isn’t what Raff wants. He’s worried nobody will stand up to Jacob.
He goes to speak with President Foley. Treason rears its head again. Boy POTUS doesn’t want any dissenting talk in his administration. He doesn’t dig that his “first real supporter” is starting to wane. He only wants unconditional support. No room for any questioning of his motives or his policies. That’s how things descend into fascism.
Not hard to figure out how Raff wound up where we see him at the beginning of the episode. When he won’t concede to President Foley’s cheating a hole-in-one, he’s gunned down by Secret Service agents after Oliver claims Raff has a gun.
Once Raff wakes, still alive, he needs surgery. Problem is, there’s only young doctors now. A boy comes to do a gruesome surgical procedure on Raff.
This whole episode’s a chilling allegory of what can happen when someone totally unprepared and ignorant to the way a system is meant to work is given near total power to do anything they want with relative impunity. “The most spoiled kid in the history of the world” could be said for the man currently in the White House. Like our Narrator explains, “society‘s a fragile ecosystem.”
The episode also speaks directly to how people will do anything for political gain and success, to the point they’re willing to lie about anything and everything if it means beating the opponent. If we sell only lies, the truth becomes too slippery for any of us to pin down, and when truth becomes nebulous anything can happen— when large groups of people become totally resistant to the truth, dangerous things occur.
“Six Degrees of Freedom” is next time.