****THE SPOILER ZONE!****
I need to preface this by saying that few people were more excited for Jordan Peele’s new version of “The Twilight Zone” than myself. The original TZ was my first television love (even before Star Trek), and I am also a huge fan of Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). Both movies are exceptionally well done modern horror, and could’ve made great feature length episodes of a modern TZ. But five episodes in and the new TZ itself is a decidedly mixed bag.
Two have been solid (“Comedian” and “Replay”), one is uneven (“A Traveler”), and two are bona fide train wrecks (“Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” and now “Wunderkind”). Interestingly, the more successful entries have been the two episodes that didn’t directly reimagine TZ classics. “Comedian” and “Replay” are (more or less) original stories, with something to say about the world of today through that unique prism of Rod Serling’s nether realm.
The new “Nightmare…” was a reimagining of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” It sputtered, lost power, and crashed; it had no moral hub, no likable/relatable characters, and no allegory…hell, it didn’t even have a freaking monster. It was a mess. Last week’s “A Traveler” was a functional, if unremarkable mishmash of two Rod Serling-written masterpieces (“The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”). Decent, but not exceptional by any means.
“Wunderkind” is a quasi-reimagining of Jerome Bixby’s classic “It’s a Good Life”, which tries to marry the story of an omnipotent child with Trump-era politics, while ignoring the pure horror of Bixby’s original in favor of easy, low-hanging satirical targets. To quote John Cho’s “Raff Hanks” character, “It is not a hole in one…”
The Story of “Wunderkind”.
The story is told in flashback, as an injured man awakens in surgery, and begins to recall why he is there…
Campaign manager Raff Hanks (an interesting John Cho) is on the brink of reelecting a very unpopular president (John Larroquette) with the aid of his friend/confidante Maura (“Fargo”’s Allison Tollman), when the numbers crash on election night. The incumbent president loses. Raff is humiliatingly berated by the soon-to-be ex-president as his career goes down the toilet.
Ditching camomile tea for booze, Raff drowns his sorrow at a local bar when he sees what looks like a silly human interest story on TV of an 11-year old YouTube sensation named Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay of 2015’s “Room”) who is announcing his candidacy for president of the United States. Others in the bar spark to the kid, whose ‘messages’ are simplistic and completely impractical, but seem to resonate with the average Joes and Janes at the bar (sound familiar?). Raff puts down the booze, and vows to get the kid elected (with absolutely NO mention of the fact that one has to be a minimum of 35 five years old to even qualify, but yeah, whatever…).
Raff, a slick political animal, immediately sets up a meeting with Oliver’s parents, Helen, Joseph (Kimberly Sustad, Lane Edwards) and his precocious sister Lily (Erica Tremblay, actor Jacob’s real-life sister). The professional image maker immediately ingratiates himself to the family. He assures Helen and Joseph that they will wield the real power, and that Oliver will only be an elected figurehead.
With young Oliver making YouTube videos, complete with dancers and campaign rap songs, the kid becomes a media sensation. But he begins to falter when his child-level attention span quickly tires of debate prep, and other ‘boring’ activities associated with campaigning. Angrily, he lashes out at his parents and advisers for not letting him play video games whenever he wants (substitute ‘video games’ for ’Tweeting’ and you get the idea). The unprepared child soon gets caught like a deer in headlights during a humiliating live debate, and his parents rush in to take their sputtering, faltering little boy off of his (raised) podium. It’s a nightmare for Raff as his career once again seems to be in the crapper…until he learns that Oliver is making a video about his dying dog. Once again, Raff is encouraged; nothing the public sympathizes with more than a kid losing a beloved pet, right? Raff gets back in the game, encouraging candidate Oliver to make the dying dog video, and it inexplicably swings the election in the kid’s favor!
Oliver becomes president (despite his age) and from then on, “Wunderkind” is a reenactment of our current presidency with a child in place of a septuagenerian. Presidential expectations, mores and graces are tossed aside with a child’s attention span. To this point, “Wunderkind” is speaking to our age, but with absolutely no subtlety or allegory of any kind. It’s essentially the current presidency recast. John Cho plays the conscience behind this madness (a stand-in for numerous advisers who’ve quit or been fired of late), watching as everything he once personally believed in (however superficially) slips away. “Old people” are no longer allowed to be doctors, because Oliver doesn’t like ‘old people’s bad breath’, etc. Oliver–er, the president is shielded by yes men, such as a marionette general (“Battlestar Galactica” veteran Aaron Douglas), as well his own utterly irresponsible parents, who revel in their son’s popularity.
Watching the world spiral out of control with the reckless abandon of a child bored with his toys, Raff seeks an audience with the child he helped elect. In an Oval Office now lit with “cooler” lighting (like the tacky gold-plating preferred by the current CIC), Raff is forced to put golf balls on the Oval Office floor (converted to a golf play set). Oliver is disturbed by rumors of Ralf’s ‘treasonous’ thoughts, Raff assures him he’s not disloyal (again, sound familiar?). He also tells his once-trusted advisor about the way he lured him back into service with his dying dog video…Raff the political animal has been outplayed by a kid.
Frustrated by his inability to make a hole in one with his ceaseless putting, Oliver angrily dumps all of the golf balls onto the the Oval Office floor, with several balls randomly falling into the cup. The pint-size president instantly declares himself the ‘winner.’ Having had enough, Raff screws up his courage to defy the grotesquely spoiled Oliver by telling him, “that’s not how it works…it is not a hole in one” (the exchange reminded me of CNN’s “this is not an apple”). Nervously, Raff begins reaching into his jacket as Oliver shouts “Gun!” to his two secret servicemen. Raff is shot…
… and awakens in a hospital, about to operated on by his child surgeon; child doctors are the only legal kind now, since a new presidential decree prohibits grownups from becoming doctors. The kid is antsy and wants to get the surgery over with, so that he can get back to his video game.
Jordan Peele gives the obligatory closing narration.
It’s not such “a Good Life.”
The story glosses over way too many sticking points, even for the “Dr. Strangelove”-style satire “Wunderkind” aspires to. Casting the current US president as a little kid… yeah, big stretch there, I know. As of this writing, the current real-life president just held a meeting with the CEO of Twitter because he’s mad at losing followers. I sincerely wish I were making that up. Modern politics are more satirical than any work of fiction could ever aspire to. It’s a very rare time indeed when “The Twilight Zone” can’t compete with CNN, or even congressional hearings from Capitol Hill broadcast on C-SPAN. Still, the viewer wonders… did Oliver (somehow) just eliminate both chambers of Congress and the Supreme Court? Were there riots in the street when he enacted some of his more draconian ideas (about doctor age, for example)? Was there at least a full government shutdown? None of this is even hinted at, let alone explored. The writers gloss over all of the fallout in favor of near-sitcom level shenanigans.
If Oliver Foley were revealed to have the same magical powers as his predecessor “Anthony Fremont” (Billy Mumy), it would’ve made these nagging questions of his rise to power moot, since he could’ve simply wished the rest of the government “into the cornfield” on a whim if they impeded him. But he doesn’t, because he can’t. He’s just an ordinary spoiled brat of a kid. The audience is just supposed to accept that the rest of the United States elected a little boy and everything (somehow) magically changed to accommodate him. Yes, times are really strange right now in America, with old standards of political conduct dying faster than anyone can keep up with, but even as satire, “Wunderkind” feels more like a 1980s sitcom (right down to the dopey parents) than a bold TZ-style statement on current politics.
The tragedy here is that “Wunderkind” has something to say about the dangers of unchecked presidential power, those who enable it to happen, and of losing ourselves in cults of personalities (something both sides of the aisle have issues with of late). “Wunderkind” could’ve been effective commentary, but it misses its mark; going for lazy Trump-era laughs at the expense of the true horror of Jerome Bixby’s original story. Instead of a little boy who could instantly will anything in or out of existence with a single thought (the very core of unchecked power) we see the country itself as the ‘powerful’ ones who (in an all-too obvious metaphor) created and enabled the spoiled-but-unpowered Oliver. It’s less horror allegory, and more a CNN sitcom.
The better “Good Life.”
The original “It’s a Good Life” (1961, based on a 1953 short story by the aforementioned Jerome Bixby) is terrifying because Anthony Fremont is just an ordinary kid, living in an ordinary farmhouse in a small rural Ohio town of Peaksville. The one difference is that he just happens to be omnipotent…complete with a child’s lack of impulse control, making him as dangerous as a live cobra slithering across the Fremont living room. The other actors in the episode really sell the stifled, muffled nightmare of living with a omnipotent 6 year old. One can only imagine what terrors ensued when infant Anthony wanted his bottle quickly, or when teenaged Anthony hit puberty and fell in love. Despite a seemingly silly premise of a godlike little kid, the episode was played completely straight for maximum horror, and still works as one of the most disturbing TZ episodes ever made. There’s a reason it’s a classic (even parodied on “The Simpsons” Treehouse of Terror Halloween specials), as it still holds up today.
The original Star Trek later had a very similar episode with Dorothy Fontana’s “Charlie X” (starring Robert Walker Jr.), which saw the USS Enterprise taking on a lonely human teenager who was given godlike powers as an infant to survive an a barren planet. It too, was a classic of that series as well.
The original Jerome Bixby story was so memorable that it was chosen as one of three episodes remade for the uneven “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983). The movie was an underrated attempt to recapture the classic series (though it is sadly more remembered for an on-set tragedy that killed actor Vic Morrow and two children). The reboot of the original “It’s a Good Life” was helmed by then-future “Gremlins” director Joe Dante. It features flashier effects and surreal production design, but is not necessarily an improvement on the spartan horror of the original.
“It’s a Good Life” is also the only episode of the original TZ that warranted a sequel (in the otherwise ignorable 2002 reboot series) with “It’s Still a Good Life.” The episode reunited costars Will Mumy & Cloris Leachman, with Mumy as a middle-aged (but still omnipotent) Anthony Freemont and Leachman as his long-suffering mother. The sequel dealt with Anthony’s young daughter (played by Mumy’s real-life daughter Liliana), who may, in fact, be even more powerful than her father, though she uses her abilities… differently. The episode was written by “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”‘s brilliant writer and story editor, Ira Steven Behr, and is one of the few episodes of the disappointing 2002 TZ reboot worth seeing, if possible.
Quality of Life.
While I don’t pretend to know the exact level of Peele’s involvement with the show (beyond narrating and producing duties), it’s clear the talented filmmaker is nowhere near as committed or involved with this new show as his late predecessor Rod Serling was for his version, and that is the real shame of it. I’ve yet to see a single episode of the new show (so far) where Peele is directly credited as either screenwriter or director (Peele won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Get Out”). I’m getting the impression that he’s lent his clout, but little of his raw talent to the production. Rod Serling gave up a very lucrative movie screenwriting gig back in the late 1950s to write, produce and yes, host each segment of the original TZ. Serling wrote 92 out of 156 total scripts for the series (!). If producer Peele could be even half as involved with new TZ as he was with his terrific sketch comedy series, “Key & Peele”, then the new TZ might truly begin to fit within in the bigger shoes of its classic predecessor.
As of now, five episodes into this series, Jordan Peele’s TZ is an occasionally pleasing homage (with “Replay” being its best installment), that is not yet fulfilling the legacy of the original. It’s time for the very capable and talented Peele to really get his hands dirty if he wants to save his troubled TV series. I still believe that the potential for a great new addition to “The Twilight Zone” legacy is still there.