Tune in Tonight: Whiz Kids
It’s understandable why so many TV shows are spun off from movies. They come with an established brand and presumably a built-in audience, and most importantly, they’re easy to sell. “Do you like Psycho? Well, how about Norman Bates as an awkward teenager?” “You know much you loved Teen Wolf? Let’s see what you think when we turn it into True Blood for teenagers!” “Remember that wonderful family comedy Uncle Buck? Well, this is what happens when we kill the shit out of the parents!”
Sometimes it implausibly works, most of the time it doesn’t. One that didn’t was 1983’s Whiz Kids, which could be described as “WarGames was pretty great, right? What about that, but with four Matthew Brodericks?” To be fair, Whiz Kids wasn’t directly based on WarGames, but, like Automan’s resemblance to Tron, the creators wouldn’t have minded if you thought it was. An hour-long adventure show that takes itself just a tad too seriously, it features a group of overachieving high school students who help the police and a crusading newspaper reporter solve crimes, mostly with their high-tech computer skills. Much of what these kids were allowed to do was legally questionable at best, if not guaranteeing a mistrial, but never mind all that. For whatever reason, people over eighteen can’t be taught the technology they know, so it’s up to a bunch of fifteen-year-olds to investigate embezzlement cases, robberies, murder plots, and even a suicide.
The episode “Amen to Amen-Re,” chosen to review mostly because it had the silliest sounding plot, opens with lead Whiz Kid Richie (Matthew Labyorteaux) and his pals visiting the home of Mr. Waltondale, a Vincent Price-like actor. Though his house looks like a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum, it’s actually full of precious artifacts, including the 4,000 year-old mummy of Amen-Ra, an Egyptian pharaoh. He shows them a series of hieroglyphs associated with Amen-Ra that supposedly represent an ancient curse, but it’s not clear because no one’s ever been able to translate them.
Well, not until now. One of the Whiz Kids writes out the hieroglyphs and they take it back to Richie’s bedroom, which looks like mission control at Cape Canaveral. Naturally, it takes just a few clicks on a keyboard to do what couldn’t be done in nearly four millennia, because these little twerps leap on every opportunity to prove how smart they are. You’d think that Richie would have the ancient language translating program he evidently invented patented and make a fortune, but no, smug satisfaction is the most valuable currency here.
Unfortunately, in successfully translating the hieroglyphs, they also invoke the curse of Amen-Ra. A more accurate name for it would be the curse of Opposite Day, given how everyone behaves. Richie becomes surly, sneaking smokes in the boys’ bathroom at school (but not inhaling) and declaring computers to be “boring.” His mother suddenly decides she wants to sell their house, and his irritating little sister become a goody-two-shoes who insists on eating plain, unsweetened oatmeal for breakfast. It even impacts people outside Richie’s home, such as his reporter buddy Farley (Max Gail) who, despite his insistence that he won’t give away his sources on a big story about police corruption, abruptly changes his mind and agrees to cooperate with the District Attorney’s Office.
It isn’t computers that saves the day, surprisingly, but Zelda Rubinstein, playing a variation of the role she played in Poltergeist, Teen Witch, and many other movies and TV shows, that of the mystical little person. Richie’s friends somehow reverse the curse by throwing glitter at the body of Amen-Ra, and everything is fine again. I would love to tell you that this is all very exciting, but it isn’t, no matter how much spooky music is playing in the background. “Bad Richie” looks and sounds a bit like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, and perhaps if he seemed more like he was possessed by some evil being beyond his control and understanding it would have been a little more interesting. Instead, he just comes off like a typical teen shithead, rolling his eyes and scoffing at his friends’ concern. Annoying, to be sure, but not scary.
The running theme for Whiz Kids seems to be “this should be way more exciting than it is,” and maybe by 1983 standards, it was. Living in an era in which facial recognition technology is so unremarkable that people use it to take pictures of themselves barfing rainbows, the show’s calculator font opening credits and enormous keyboards can only come off as adorably quaint. Like WarGames, virtually all the “action” involves people sitting in front of computers typing, and yet, WarGames, likely because of the stakes involved, still comes off as a compelling adventure movie. It also recognizes that it’s because of his careless fucking around on his computer that Matthew Broderick is forced to save the world from the possibility of nuclear war. Here, adults, ostensibly on the right side of the law, take advantage of said careless fucking around, using it as a shortcut for actual detective work and, really, putting these kids’ lives at risk and pushing the limits of the law so far you can almost hear a rubber band snapping. If this show was made today, these characters would be looking down on kids for their rampant SnapChatting and emoji-ing, but come to them for help doxing someone who gave them a negative eBay rating.
Original airdate: January 28, 1984