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Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in "The Wunderkind"

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Five Review

Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in “The Wunderkind.”

Andy Samberg’s comedic opus Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping – a spoof on modern pop music stardom – features a scene in which Samberg’s character Conner4Real shits in the bathroom of the Anne Frank House. The scene is a riff on Justin Bieber’s infamous note left in the Anne Frank House’s guestbook: “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.” David Ehrlich wrote in his review that Popstar‘s satire is not quite as absurd as the real-life event it criticizes. “There’s no getting around one stubborn truth about this frequently hilarious movie,” he writes. “The incident that may have inspired it was also the incident that rendered it unnecessary.”

The same can be said of The Twilight Zone’s newest episode “The Wunderkind,” in which an eleven-year-old child is elected President of the United States. The episode takes this premise to very heavy-handed and obvious places, offering nothing new to our already frantic discourse concerning the White House. “Huh, doesn’t this childlike behavior remind us of a certain orange-faced Oval Office occupant?” asks the episode’s writer, as if they are the first to deem Trump’s conduct childlike.

Local cute boy Oliver Foley (Jacob Tremblay) initially rises to moderate fame as a lets-play YouTuber who pwns the noobz in Fortnite – he makes a point to say his first content endeavors centered on Minecraft, but he is too old for that “little boy” game now – but shoots to viral stardom when he announces his candidacy for President. Disgraced campaign manager Raff Hanks (John Cho) sees Oliver’s video and immediately pounces on him as a serious candidate. Raff ran his previous campaign into the ground, but Oliver is a chance at a new beginning.

John Cho as Raff Hanks and Jacob Tremblay as President Oliver Foley in “The Wunderkind.”

Oliver clicks with the American public instantly. His statements bestowing the virtues of “being nice to other people” and “having more Star Wars movies” seep into the citizenship’s hearts. His apparent goodness makes him a strong enough candidate as any, so the public believes, and he skyrockets to the top of the polls instantly. Despite several poor debate performances displaying no true knowledge of public policy – sound bites include “taxes are good except when they’re bad, but they’re mostly good, right?” – Oliver utilizes his innocent charm to cement his throne as America’s Sweetheart, climbing his way to the American Presidency.

Oliver’s brattiness is teased throughout the episode through screaming matches with is parents or refusal to participate in debate prep, but only when he ascends to the Oval Office does his character truly sour. His demands as Commander-in-Chief turn quite extreme. He calls for Nintendo to give all American’s a free Gameboy or he will impose a million-dollar-per-Gameboy tax, burying the company in a pit of financial failure. He wants to “fire” all of Congress when they request his medical report. The aides, rather than pushing against Oliver’s demands, follow his wishes blindly. Any confrontation leads to an immediate firing.

The Trump allegory is painfully hamfisted. Stories of Trump’s inadequate knowledge of governmental functions and refusal to consider other’s points-of-view are far too numerous for me to mention. But the attempt at political commentary in “The Wunderkind” proves useless as it is preaching to the choir. No Trump supporter will see “The Wunderkind” and think, “Oh gee, maybe Trump really is bad.” Nor will any Trump nay-sayers come away with new insights on his Presidency. The episode regurgitates familiar rhetoric surrounding the Trump era with no new perspective to offer. “The Wunderkind” is not trying to make an argument; it is inviting already like-minded viewers to join in on beating its dead horse. Trump is a petulant child! We get it!

We have seen a lot of incredible Trump Era art that insightfully examines what led to his Presidency and his failings as a leader (BlackKlansman, Sorry to Bother You, The Death of Stalin, and The Favourite are four examples from 2018 alone). But those films are adding to the conversation and try to point out toxic aspects of the United States that were already thriving before Trump took office. “The Wunderkind” has no similar ambition. It is content to say “Trump is bad” and leave it at that. In a show as hellbent on confronting questions of American identity as this new Twilight Zone revival is, “The Wunderkind” single-layered identity as an anti-Trump narrative does not bravely enough consider what it is about Trump that is so troubling. It is more comforting to point and mock than it is to look inward.

Episodes of “The Twilight Zone” are available exclusively at CBS All Access.


Steven Yeun as A. Traveler in "The Traveler."

“The Twilight Zone” (2019): Episode Four Review

Steven Yeun as A. Traveler in “The Traveler.”

The Twilight Zone in its first three episodes has delivered a variety of genres: “The Comedian” is a mildly supernatural parable; “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet” is a mystery; and “Replay” is political allegory. It is fun to see the show bouncing around different avenues to deliver its storytelling. But now The Twilight Zone has entered truly bonkers territory with its science-fiction laden fourth episode “T Traveler,” and the confidence I once had in being a moderately intelligent person has been shaken by this episode’s refusal to hold the audience’s hand.

“The Traveler” takes place in the State Trooper station of a small Alaskan community. It is Christmas Eve and Captain Lane Pendleton (Greg Kinnear) is hosting the station’s annual Christmas Party. Every year – to boost his own ego – he pardons one of the criminals in the jail to spread seasonal joy. Since nobody is in the jail on Christmas Eve, Sergeant Yuka Mongoyak (Marika Sila) arrests her brother Jack (Patrick Gallagher) simply to provide Captain Pendleton a pardonee for the party.  Yuka locks her brother in the cell and returns to the party until Pendleton gives her orders to release him.

When Yuka  comes back to release Jack she discovers a stranger (“Adrian Bryant’s Pick for Sexiest Man Alive” Steven Yeun) has entered Jack’s neighboring cell. The man claims to be a hit YouTuber named A. Traveler.  A. Traveler, well, travels across the world to create video content covering his adventures across the globe’s greatest natural and man-made feats. Captain Pendleton’s pardoning ceremony is one such feat in the eyes of the YouTube community, according to the stranger. As A. Traveler’s praise for the Captain grows more extreme (he once claims that Russian agents say they will never invade the U.S. because they’d have to get through Captain Pendleton), Pendleton  consents to giving the well-dressed stranger the greatest gift of all: a trademark Pendleton Pardon.

A. Traveler joins the Christmas party after being released and proves to be quite the guest. He sings karaoke, he praises each officer individually, and he does his fair share of flirting. But as Yuka grows more suspicious of the conspicuous guest, he begins to exhibit alarming behavior. He outs the dirty laundry on some of the officers’ disorderly conduct (a la excessive drinking and refusal to pay child support). Pendleton’s attitude on the man turns sour after his draconian escapade. Yuka, similarly distressed, attempts to ally with Pendleton to discover the mystery behind the well-dressed visitor.

Marika Sila as Yuka in “The Traveler.”

“The Traveler” is very concerned with the questions about truth and agenda. All of the characters, including our main protagonist, are made to be untrustworthy. While Yeun is the antagonist-lite of the episode, Pendleton is also quite shady, bemonaed by Yuka and Jack as a self-indulgent prick. He opens the Christmas party with a speech about how his Christian ancestors tamed the great, uninhabited land of Alaska. The tension between his alpha-colonialist sentiments and Yuka’s resentment of Inuits (as well as other Native American groups) being pushed to the ass-end of his – and America’s – cultural narrative creates a fascinating dynamic between the two characters: Pendleton is the worst of America’s patriotic tendencies, and Yuka seems to want to usurp him at any point she can. Sadly, this specific duality is rarely explored beyond the episode’s first twenty minutes.

A. Traveler utilizes their division to his liking. He lauds Pendleton as the epitome of American values (in many ways, he unfortunately is), but tells Yuka that soon she will be rightfully in charge of the post. Between his hypocritical attitudes to the two and his repeated lies concerning his identity – one moment he is a YouTuber and the next moment he is an FBI agent – we learn A. Traveler has many secrets hidden beneath his charming grin. But the episode seems to be asking us if trusting Pendleton or Yuka is any more reasonable than trusting A. Traveler. Motives inherently infect institutions, and believing in any one person’s agenda can be very dangerous.

“The Traveler,” despite its interesting questions on individual exploitation, is a tonal mess. At some points it desires to be a governmental thriller, but when it settles into that groove it moves into a mild but contextually jarring science-fiction world where natural laws as we understand them are tossed away. The cast does as well as it can with the material – thankfully neither the script nor the direction dampen Yeun’s astronomical sex appeal – but their performances get lost in the mixed messaging of the story. While it is a nutty episode that I cannot stop thinking about, it does not build to a wholly satisfying experience.

That is as much as I can say without spoiling the end. But I can’t not talk about the absurd direction that this episode takes in its last few moments. So after this point there will be spoilers for “The Traveler.”

Steven Yeun as A. Traveler and Greg Kinnear as Captain Pendleton in “The Traveler.”

[ONCE AGAIN: SPOILERS FOR “THE TRAVELER” FOLLOW]

In the early moments of the episode we see a pink star overlooking the State Trooper station as Yuka and Jack make their way in. They are both perplexed by the sight, but shrug it off as a harmless anomaly. The moment they resume marching forward the star zips away into the forest line. What we now see as a U.F.O. is a not-so-subtle hint that this episode is about aliens. I was well primed, then, for Steven Yeun to be an intergalactic troll.

What I was decisively not prepared for, however, was that this intergalactic troll would be a meddler in international affairs. A. Traveler reveals that Pendleton has sold the location of the nearby Air Force base’s power grid to the Russians. He insists that if Pendleton does not act quickly, the Russian agents currently on their way to confirm the location will be sabotaged by the American agents that the Traveler have tipped off.  Pendleton will be exposed as a treasonous agent and will be put away for the rest of his life, if he is lucky enough to not have started a full-scale war between the two countries.

Pendleton rushes to the grid to stop the Russia/America conflict, but then there is no Russia/America conflict. A. Traveler lied so that Pendleton would lead his alien army to the grid for them to invade. When Yuka is left alone with A. Traveler after Pendleton leaves, he reveals his scheme to her while also revealing her abdication of her duties in favor of taking down Pendleton. A. Traveler has lied to her repeatedly and she has pressed him on those lies, except for when he promised Yuka that she would take over Captain Pendleton’s job very soon. That lie she accepted. Once the promise was made, Yuka,  became much more hands off, and therefore complicit in a scheme she could have obstructed. The Traveler still leaves the opportunity to take Pendleton’s job (assuming his demis) open to her, under the condition she submit to his authority.

Deciding that she will not cave to A. Traveler’s plot, Yuka rushes to stop Pendleton from revealing the location of the grid. She arrives to find Pendleton fully aware that A. Traveler was lying. He also exposes her corrupt ambition for wanting to overthrow him. “It’s only a lie if we choose to believe it,” he says while staring down the bullet of Yuka’s shotgun. Alien ships soon fly over the two of them, and the credits roll.

Admittedly, I have a hard time making out what the episode is trying to say. As mentioned above, it seems to be delving into ideas about how we exploit our personal agendas at the expense of progress. Both Pendleton and Yuka are at war with each other over conflicting interests; all it takes it the Traveler to raise their conflict to its full potential. Pendleton’s knowledge, though, muddies the waters for me. I don’t believe it is meant to be an optimistic ending – one that would be saying man can be aware of his flaws enough to know when he is being played – given that the aliens do invade. His last line, though. I don’t know what to make of it.

I am going to have to revisit “The Traveler” again to make sense of the whole ordeal. I am unsure if it is admirably ambitious or remarkably silly. Regardless, trying hard toward a great goal and failing in art is much preferable to playing it safe. Of course, it may have hit its target. I may just need to give myself more time to find out what that target is.

The Twilight Zone’s first episode, “The Comedian,” is free on YouTube for those without a CBS All Access subscription. All other episodes will only be available on CBS All Access.


Sanaa Lathan and Steve Harris in "Replay."

"The Twilight Zone" (2019): Episode Three Review

Sanaa Lathan and Steve Harris in “Replay.”

I was at dinner with a friend when my girlfriend, Kennedy, started blowing up my phone with irate text messages. What the heck. / That’s not Twilight Zone. / That doesn’t have a freaking lesson. / That’s just throwing in something pretty weird and being like, “Huh, weird, right? / I am mad. This is not correct. Why did this happen to me. No good.

She was referring specifically to “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet,”  the second episode of the new Twilight Zone series. While I bemoaned the failings of “30,000 Feet” for some length last week, Kennedy put its primary issue far more succinctly than I managed to: “It is not surreal,” she said. “It is a murder mystery. Rather than a ‘who-dun-it,’ the episode is ‘who-gonna-do-it?’ That isn’t Twilight Zone-y.”

She has a point. The glaring flaw of the first two episodes is that the premise is not in any way metaphorical. While “The Comedian” is supernatural, the idea doesn’t really hold an inherent message. “Nightmare at 30,000” is hardly supernatural and meanders endlessly to a lame climax. Serling’s aim with the original Twilight Zone was to bring sociopolitical discussion to a television world through allegory, as outright mentioning politics would never be allowed. That the first two episodes of CBS All Access’s new swing at the property are so apolitical is a peculiar failure.

The Twilight Zone’s third episode, “Replay,” is a massive course-correction toward political messaging. While Serling’s original show could only hint at current events, “Replay” outright addresses social struggles while still maintaining the otherworldliness of the original series.

The episode revolves around Nina Harrison (Sanaa Lathan) and her son Dorian (Damson Idris) as they travel to Dorian’s college freshman orientation. Nina is filming the event on a massive camcorder from years past, which Dorian takes ample time to mock. Nina discovers that when she hits the Rewind button on the camcorder time itself literally reverses. Nina uses the ability to reverse time repeatedly in attempt to avoid confrontation with Officer Lasky (Glenn Fleshler); despite the repeated do-over’s, the different routes she takes to the school, and the varying degrees with which she tries to relate to Lasky, every trip to the college results in Lasky pulling Nina and Dorian over, putting them into great danger.

Sanaa Lathan and Damson Idris in “Replay.”

“Replay,” by Kennedy’s metrics, is incredibly Twilight Zone-y. It is remarkably tense; Lasky pulls the family over multiple times throughout the episode, but each encounter between the three grows more fearful. Lasky is stern and relentless, and his racism seethes through his pores any time he speaks with Nina or Dorian. The fear Nina and Dorian have of Lasky is, unfortunately, the fear that many African American families must live with. The sight of red and blue sirens always bring the prospect of fatality at the hands police, and the epidemic of police brutality is at the center of the episode’s plot.

“Replay,” as well as being politically cognizant, is very cheesy and sentimental – as many Twilight Zone episodes are. Nina as more or less shunned her family and childhood life, not having talked to her brother Neil (Steve Harris) in years, nor going to her father’s funeral once he passed. Dorian does not resent Nina for depriving him of an extended family, but he desperately begs her to reconnect with Neil and develop a familial connection that he has not been blessed with. The “solution” to overcoming Lasky’s threatening presence is tied to Nina’s family (I will not spoil how, exactly), and it brings a sappiness to the episode that the first two notably lacked.

The show emphasizes the power of solidarity. Nina needs to learn to embrace her past to ensure a safer future for her son. Her solidarity with her family – and the African American community at large – are key to the episode’s thematic and emotional success. “Replay” is hopeful for the future while recognizing the difficulties that come with progress, and the balance of optimism and realism is a key tone that unites the episode with Serling’s original series.

Damson Idris and Glenn Fleshler in “Replay.”

The stance that “Replay” takes against police brutality is very likely to alienate some viewers from the show. The original series was no stranger to episodes critiquing racism, but none were quite as overt as “Replay” is. And police brutality, especially in conservative states like Kentucky, is always sure to spark rage condemning the “war on police.” CBS’s release an episode so aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement (various allusions to Black Lives Matter are interspersed throughout the episode’s locations) speaks to a mission of inclusion present from the series’s  start (thinking of Jordan Peele hosting, Kumail Nanjiani being the lead of the first episode, and the team of African American writers who worked on “Replay”) and a willingness to give stories to populations that – even in the ’60s Twilight Zone – have been excluded from Hollywood en masse.

“Replay” pushes the political legacy of Rod Serling much farther than I am sure he ever would have imagined. Even if it alienates more conservative viewers (although hopefully they will learn from the episode rather than immediately protesting it), the push works exceedingly well and is exactly what the show needed to improve on the banality of its first two episodes.

The Twilight Zone’s first episode, “The Comedian,” is free on YouTube for those without a CBS All Access subscription. All other episodes will only be available on CBS All Access.