We’re five episodes into this reboot of The Twilight Zone now, which should set us at the halfway point if I’m not mistaken. The season has had ups and downs, with only one episode I was truly “eh” on. This might be another one for me. In fact this is the first one I’d probably just call bad.
Intriguing in presence and performance just isn’t enough to carry an episode like this. Bringing the show back in the era of Black Mirror was dangerous, attempting to fill a void that’s already found something to take that place, and if they’re not careful this will be a short-lived revival. An episode starring John Cho and Jacob Tremblay is a good start. A story about a campaign surrounding a child, one that spews buzzwords while behind the scenes behaving like a spoiled brat, is topical and should have been something to keep them on-point. Tie that in with a mysterious surgical operation, blood seeping and death immanent, and we should have a fantastic episode on our hands. All the trappings of a good time are here and yet I feel hollow after finishing it.
Riding on the coattails of last week’s triumph episode, “A Traveler,” we’re now submitted “The Wunderkind” for our perusal. When young Oliver Foley (Tremblay) begins garnering millions of views on his YouTube channel by stating he’d run for president on empty promises and adorable soundbytes, disgraced campaign manager Raff Hanks (Cho) decides to back him for presidential election and begins helping him organize rallies and garner more fans. A tempting premise, one that could land too on-the-nose if poorly executed, the first two-thirds of the episode are fantastic. They play with the notion that people want someone outside of career politics, a human being that would connect with the greater America who starves for change. Hollow statements, the sweet statements of a child, and a promise to surround himself with smart people to help him make good decisions, are all the public needs to drink the Kool-aid and get onboard with the boy’s campaign. And off-camera, where people aren’t watching, Oliver is behaving like a spoiled brat. He swears, he throws tantrums, and no one seems to have the spine to stop him. As Raff worries, he still buys into the ideas that the boy uses to cater to his audience. The two even weaponize Oliver’s sick dog to save his campaign after a disastrous result, pushing the idea that he’s a real human being and that should still be reason to support him.
I wanted to love this, particular with a bleeding John Cho intercut from the beginning; an in-media-res attempt to give us reason to worry. And we should worry, but more because the payoff just isn’t that interesting. In fact none of the payoffs are all that interesting. A child is elected president and he turns out to be an angry, demanding brat? Perhaps a bit too blunt. The forwardness of the scathing parody is part of the problem, lacking in any nuance or subtlety. I love making fun of Donald Trump, it soothes the wounds a bit, but Alec Baldwin at least makes it funny. I’m honestly more interested in his Tweets about this episode than I am the way it ended, and that says a lot because I’ve been pretty forgiving with a couple of lackluster endings thus far. There was a lot of possibility in the premise, no matter how obviously it was meant to be a parody of the latest American debacle, and there’s no excuse for how lazy it got in the last fifteen minutes.
I’m sorry to you Jordan Peele. I’m sorry to writer Andrew Guest. Hell, I’m sorry to director Richard Shepard (although the episode looked good, won’t fault you for that). This could have been a triumph, another to follow the success of the previous episode, but instead it’s the series’s first true failure. From performances to visuals, this episode delivered on all fronts, but the story in its current form should not have made it to television. I hate saying that, but I’ve finally felt disappointment in this show. It’s getting hammered on a lot of fronts by TZ purists, angry that it isn’t invoking more of their nostalgia and isn’t landing where they predicted, but I’ve enjoyed it up to this point. Now though, I’ve finally felt the frustration and worry that others are feeling and it was jarring.
If you have to skip an episode of the new series…I think this one would do fine.