By Sara Netzley
April 25, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Robert Falconer/CBS
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A childish, easily distracted president of the United States with a slippery grasp on facts and a short temper. Ummm, without getting too political about an explicitly political episode, this week’s Twilight Zone is a bit of a Rorschach test for viewers. Is it a new-century take on the classic episodeIt’s a Good Life,” or is it a commentary on the current occupant of the White House? You decide!

We open on Raff Hanks (John Cho), who wakes up in a brightly lit operating theater, confused, bleeding, and in pain. Then we flashback to the events that led him this moment.

Five years earlier, Raff was the wunderkind (no, really, that’s the name of his soon-to-be-released autobiography!) who spearheaded the campaign to reelect the most unpopular president in history.

Alas, on election night, Raff’s fancy data fails him and the president becomes a one-term joke. Skip ahead two years, and Raff’s finding comfort in the bottom of a bourbon glass, bitterly watching still-in-favor political pundits pontificate on cable news. Based on the clips we see, the new president isn’t doing much better than the old one, though.

But soft, what light through yonder TV breaks? It’s 11-year-old YouTube sensation Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay), whose vlog moved from Minecraft to Fortnight as he gained fame and followers over time. Now, his announcement that he’s running for president has racked up 12 million views, thanks in part to his “a video game in every house” platform.

Raff watches in wonder as the barflies all agree that they’d totally vote for Oliver, who values niceness and honesty above all else. Then the Narrator pops up to tell us that Raff’s road to redemption will take him through the Twilight Zone.

Sensing an opportunity, Raff joins the Foleys for spaghetti dinner and is charmed by Oliver’s authenticity and ability to connect with people. At first, Oliver’s parents think it’s a joke, but Raff explains that Oliver’s mother, Helen, would actually be the one on the ballot, which makes it legal. And yes, Raff may be an opportunist seeking his way back into power, but he also believes in the kid.

So Oliver hits the campaign trail in—where else?—Iowa, where Raff’s joined by his former campaign colleague Maura McGill (Allison Tolman). Oliver promises the crowd better air quality and fewer Star Wars movies, then he trots off the stage anticipating baby carrots on the campaign bus and a slot on Maddow that night. But first, he issues Raff a cutely stern warning about doing better with hits on his videos. Awww, adorable, right? Right??

Oliver’s behavior continues to fluctuate on the trail. Sure, average citizens on the news sing his praises, and his campaign music video, complete with backup dancers and his face on Mount Rushmore, is a huge success. But he also throws a screaming tantrum about being forced to go to a doctor’s appointment and is shaky during debate prep.

At the debate itself, alongside the adult candidates, Oliver crumbles under the weight of his uninformed answers and has to be carried off the stage by his mother as Raff watches it unfold in horror.

He returns to the bottle, but Maura lures him back with the news that Oliver’s dog, Homer, has terminal cancer, and Oliver wants to make one more vlog. This animates Raff, who realizes it can get them back in the Iowa race. “That’s not good,” Allison mutters as he leaves.

In the Homer video, Oliver sits with his family and his dog and promises that as president, he’d surround himself with the nicest, smartest people. Then in rapid succession, we cut to Oliver’s first-place Iowa caucus finish with Raff in front of the cable news cameras, then to his inauguration parade packed with cheering crowds.

Once in the Oval Office, Oliver climbs onto the desk and declares, “This is the president! Bomb Russia! Just kidding!” When Helen explains that he can’t actually give people free video games, he threatens to replace everybody if they don’t get him what he wants, constitutionality be damned. Also, his title is “Mr. President,” thank you very much.

As time rolls along, Oliver installs penguins on the White House lawn and comic book art and pinball machines in the Oval. (Actually, all of that is pretty cool.) Less cool is his prohibition against “old doctors” when he’s told Congress is requiring him to get a physical. Then he takes off to ride through the White House hallways on a tricycle straight out of the Danny Torrance toy catalog—yet somehow, improbably, it’s even scarier in this setting.

This point is driven home when Raff stops one of Oliver’s military advisers to suggest that the president is acting like a spoiled child. The man looks coldly at Raff and warns him not to talk treason. Likewise, Raff’s attempts to reach Helen also fall on deaf ears, and Maura, who took a post-campaign job in the private sector, tells him it’s a phase that’ll pass.

Things come to a head when Raff joins Oliver on the indoor White House putting green, which disappoints the president with its lack of windmills and pirate ships. Raff tries to bring up his concerns about Oliver’s behavior, but Oliver’s enraged that his earliest supporter isn’t backing him unconditionally, gloating that he faked Homer’s terminal cancer to get Raff back on his team.

Then he knocks over a full basket of balls, spilling them on the green, and screams that he finally made a hole in one. He’s the president, after all; if he says it happened, it happened, and any disagreement is treason. When Raff objects to this irrational bully distorting reality on a whim, Oliver orders the Secret Service to open fire. They do, and the public immediately adopts the opinion that Raff deserved what he got for attacking “that sweet little boy.”

Now, we’re back where we started, with Raff strapped to an operating table awaiting surgery on his ruptured spleen and punctured lung. But the man who’s been attending him reminds him that, by law, he’s not permitted to be a doctor any longer. A child then steps up and grabs a large knife to hurriedly slash his way through Raff’s operation. He’s got a video game to get back to, after all.

The Zone zone

  • Ah, yes, I recognize this Twilight Zone formula: an outlandish premise made nightmarishly real, plus a narratively satisfying twist, in a story that lends itself to multiple interpretations. It’s good that you did that, writers.
  • This series reboot is absolutely bursting with onscreen talent. Allison Tolman should be in everything always (RIP, Downward Dog), and I was left wanting much, much more John Larroquette as the bad one-term president. A modest proposal: Pair Larroquette/Tolman in the Veep spinoff of our dreams! You can’t squander such a perfectly named political operative like Maura McGill.
  • Okay, if you were president, what’s the first thing you’d install in the Oval? Pinball? Black lights? Soda fountain? Let me know in the comments!

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