The fifth episode of The Twilight Zone is finally one for the people — well, those of us who prize character development over plot twists, anyway. Though “The Wunderkind” does occasionally lose itself in its point-blank satire involving a child running for President of the United States (sheesh), there is a enough of a focus on the campaign’s ambitious young manager for the show to feel refreshingly human for a change. Though it’s doubtful anyone will be chanting for “four more seasons” just yet, the path to renewal just got a little clearer.
The story is told in flashbacks, as a mercenary electioneer named Rafe Hanks (a solid John Cho) looks back on his past from a secluded operating table to which he is strapped. It seems that four years ago, after Rafe misread polling data suggesting his unpopular boss would be reelected, the once-touted “Wunderkind” went into political exile in order to drink away his failure. However, after watching a viral YouTube video of a young boy named Oliver who has whimsically declared his own candidacy for the highest office in the land, Rafe gets the crazy idea that this adorably plucky whippersnapper — whose innocence just happens to connect with the voting public — might be his ticket back into the big game.
It’s the kind of ridiculous plot that seems more suitable to a punchline than an hour-long episode of television, but “The Wunderkind” manages to sidestep its uneven tone and hackneyed allusions to explore not only a general sort of populism, but also the calculating outlook of a certain type of person for whom elections are merely about competition — about winning. Rafe’s cynical approach sees him treating these events as contests as challenges with which he can boost his own notoriety, and nothing more. Positions on issues and policy mean nothing to him; he knows that the best way to get votes is to be liked. And what could be more likable than a civic-minded, optimistic youngster uncorrupted by the stain of years in politics?
There are times when it’s funny and times when it’s too self-serious, but “The Wunderkind” is consistently intriguing.
Well, probably someone whose platform doesn’t rest on free video games, for one. But because this is The Twilight Zone, even a boy whose realistic potential would be capped at memedom can fake-cry and music-video his way to the top of the ballot. Once Oliver starts getting some traction with the doofus populace, Rafe begins to notice some imperfections in his pre-pubescent candidate. In a shock to no one, it turns out that kids can be bratty, impetuous, selfish little pricks! Soon, Rafe begins to experience the process of an actual character arc while realizing the ramifications of his success. His manipulative cynicism may have enabled a monster, and so Rafe ultimately tries to make things right. Of course, this is still The Twilight Zone…
Now look, “The Wunderkind” is about as flawless as its namesake — which is to say, it’s got plenty of issues. The script can’t seem to settle on a tone that works best for this laughable premise, dancing back and forth between comedic and ominous when it could (and should) have just leaned into the former, and there are also more of those annoying, time-stamped cultural references that this iteration of the series seems so fond of (congratulations — you know that Fortnite is a thing). Elements of the satire are so heavy-handed as to be pandering, and allusions to 2016 are clumsy at best. It also would have been nice to see a little more of the aftermath of the election (the only time the tonal shift actually works), and the ‘twist’ ending is an absolute dud that doesn’t have nearly as much impact as the scene before it.
That said, “The Wunderkind” achieves the steadiest connection of this new-fangled season by keeping an almost old-fashioned focus on the state of its main character. Rafe is properly established, then given a satisfying arc that grounds the parallel-dimension feel of this story in a humanity that manages to keep it from flying off into eye-roll territory. John Cho also deserves much of the credit, finding a believable progression for a character that requires him to be cocky, defeated, suspicious, hopeful, vulnerable, and terrified. His centered performance allows the script to go off in directions in which the audience may otherwise not have followed.
That includes some of the more general political commentaries. While the specific pokes are tiresome, writer Andrew guest finds some layers that he executes rather adeptly. Though the idea of a child winning the White House will certainly call to mind something contemporary to many, “The Wunderkind” examines populism in general, crafting its politicians in ways that will have both sides of the political spectrum seeing bits of each other. Oliver is a temperamental brat who has little-to-no understanding of governmental workings, who just wants to be liked and obeyed, panders to the public via social media, and who promises lots of free stuff that isn’t practical or even feasible. No matter where you stand, that probably sounds like someone you don’t like. Clever.
There are times when it’s funny and times when it’s too self-serious, but “The Wunderkind” is consistently intriguing. It may not be perfect, but it’s the first episode this season to actually feel like The Twilight Zone.