It’s 1983. Computers are new. Computers are cool. So is WarGames, the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie about a computer hacker that breaks into the US military supercomputer and nearly accidentally starts World War 3.
So what would be better than a TV show in which a whizz kid hacker breaks into military computers and causes World War 3 every week?
Oh. Well, unless you do an Aeon Flux and end the world every week, that’s not going to last long as a series, is it? So how about a more traditional affair in which a nerdy computer hacker (and his gang of friends) solve crimes that in some way revolve around computers? We could eek that out for a whole season, couldn’t we?
CBS tried to do just that with Whiz Kids. Starring Matthew Laborteaux of Little House on the Prairie and The Red Hand Gang, it saw computer hacker Richie (Laborteaux) building a computer of his own, RALF, from the spare parts his father sends from overseas on telecoms jobs. With the assistance of a few friends (one black, one female, one cool white boy, one annoying young kid to maintain the standard demographic/tokenist spread of the time), as well as newspaper reporter Lew Farley (Max Gail), the police and from episode 13, former secret agent Carson Marsh (Dan O’Herlihy), Richie solves various crimes, usually ones involving murders and corporate espionage but occasionally involving spies.
The show didn’t really push many boundaries in terms of either plotting or character development, but the show did avoid the traps of having the kids solving crimes by themselves, of making only Laborteaux’s character capable of any thought and of having an entirely romance-free set-up: a love triangle between the cool kid, the girl and Richie was hinted at. The kids don’t spend all day indoors, but actually have other hobbies. It was also hinted that the girl (Alice, played by Andrea Elson of ALF fame) was actually quite a good hacker herself, but Richie was too up himself to notice.
The show also didn’t avoid the question of the kids’ ethics: the show depicted some genuine hacking techniques, including ‘war dialing’ (named after WarGames), brute force password cracking, denial-of-service attacks, and even social engineering, some of which would be considered serious criminal acts within a year of the show airing.
Perhaps Wizz Kids‘ most notable aspect for people now was the amount of genuine classic computer software and equipment that ended up in the show, with Apple, Autodesk, Hitachi, RadioShack, Atari, Xerox, Mattel and Commodore among the companies that provided product placement – look closely and you’ll spot an Apple II and a TRS-80 on display.
However, the show itself only lasted one season and hasn’t been released on DVD. All the same, YouTube is your friend and here’s the entire series for you to enjoy. Have fun!