A facile stab at political satire, “Wunderkind,” the fifth season of the revived Twilight Zone, often plays like it was built around the memes it might produce. The plot, in short: Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay), an 11-year-old kid, becomes president of the United States. Wearing a familiar-looking suit, a mop of blonde hair, and a power tie, he brings with him a child’s mood swings, limited understanding of politics and nuance, and a demanding personality. And, once elected, he abuses his staff by spitting threats like like, “You guys are gonna get that done for me or I’ll get other people to get it done for me. There won’t be a shortage of people who want to work for the new president of the United States.” Screenshot that with the captions on then drop it into a Facebook post or a reply to @realDonaldTrump and pat yourself on the back. You’ve just done some political commentary. (Also Oliver likes ice cream and cheats at miniature golf. Get it?)
To be fair, “Wunderkind” is part of a tradition. A whole strand of original Twilight Zone episodes make their points in the opening moments then spend the rest of their running time pounding those points home. The only problem: These aren’t the series’ most fondly remembered episodes, when they’re remembered at all. Making it even more disappointing, it strands an excellent cast in a sweaty episode that can’t decide if it wants to be scary or funny and ends up being neither.
John Cho stars as Raff Hanks, an ace political consultant who, as the episode opens (not counting an ominous prologue), appears to be on the verge of his greatest success. With the help of his co-worker Maura (Allison Tolman) he’s just used data and polling to seal the reelection of President Stevens (John Larroquette), “the most unpopular president in American history.” What’s more, he’s become something a celebrity himself and will soon be publishing a memoir of his experiences, Wunderkind.
But events don’t trend in the right direction, to put it in polling terms, and after Stevens’s unexpected loss, Raff turns into an alcoholic has-been. Then, inspiration strikes: As dissatisfaction sets in two years into the new president’s term, America becomes enchanted with “YouTube sensation” Oliver Foley’s “campaign” for president, a series of videos in which he declares “I want people to be nice to each other” and “I may be a kid. But I sure do get America.” No one takes it seriously, of course. Until Raff does.
Using the loophole that Oliver’s mom will be the nominal candidate, Raff convinces Oliver’s family to let him run. And what could go wrong? He’s sweet. He loves dogs and video games, wants everyone to be nice to one another, and he’s “sick of all the war stuff and the environment stuff.” He’s sure to bring out the best in everyone.
Except, of course, he doesn’t. After a campaign filled with highs (a hit choreographed music video) lows (a disastrous debate), and a dramatic comeback (thanks to a weepy video about his dying dog), Oliver finds himself White House–bound. Unfortunately, the position makes a monster of him. Who saw that coming?
“Wunderkind” puts a pin in an inevitable destination then meanders its way toward it, which wouldn’t be a problem if the meandering worked. Instead, it’s filled with jabs at modern politics in general, and the 2016 election and Donald Trump in particular, that make most light-night routines look incisive by comparison. It also seems at war with itself. Written by Andrew Guest (Brooklyn Nine-Nine) and directed by Richard Shepard (The Matador, Girls), its jokey moments clash with its ominous tone. Though it scores some last-moment points with a truly dark final twist, the stabs at satire ultimately do it in. Or maybe it’s an inability to compete with reality. Does the image of a child growing increasingly unhinged while barking ridiculous orders in the Oval Office have the power to shock anymore?
Light and Shadows
• One obvious, and better, point of inspiration: The 1968 film Wild in the Streets, in which a rock star becomes president after running on a platform to lower the voting age to 14. It’s a knowingly ridiculous send-up of the late-’60s generation gap that tips into creepiness as the movie progresses. Or, for a lighter take, there’s always DC Comics’ Prez, an occasionally revived 1973 series (most likely inspired by Wild in the Streets) in which a purehearted teen becomes president. (His mom serves as vice-president.)
• Since the original Twilight Zone often recycled cast members, it would be great to see Cho and Tolman return in better episodes.
• Does Jordan Peele blink during the intro? Yes. I counted two blinks. But it looked like he was fighting the instinct.