Whiz Kids is an American science fiction adventure television series created by Philip DeGuere and Bob Shayne that originally aired on CBS from October 5, 1983 to June 2, 1984, lasting one season and consisting of 18 episodes. The 60-minute series follows four high school tenth-graders (portrayed by Matthew Laborteaux, Todd Porter, Jeffrey Jacquet and Andrea Elson) who use their sophisticated knowledge of computers to become amateur detectives, solving crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice.
Although the series experienced a notable backlash from critics for its portrayal of teenage computer hackers, the program garnered four Youth in Film Award nominations for its young stars, as well as a fifth nomination as “Best New Television Series” of 1983.
Philip DeGuere conceived Whiz Kids after recognizing the importance of computers in his work as a television producer and believed the “new” technology could make an interesting premise for a series. Prior to the series’ premiere in October 1983, the premise of teenage computer geniuses hacking into other computers was often compared to, and thought to have been inspired by, that of the film WarGames, which had been released in May 1983 and became a hit during that summer. However, DeGuere repeatedly stated that his idea for the show was originally conceived in 1981 and was subsequently validated when Time magazine named the computer its 1982 “Man of the Year.”
After conceiving the idea in 1981, DeGuere spent months researching the technology and developing the premise before pitching it to CBS. The network saw potential and, in January 1983, they commissioned a $2-million pilot which DeGuere delivered three months later. CBS was impressed and green-lighted the series for a debut in the fall of that same year.
When explaining the decision to build the show around high school age characters, DeGuere stated-
“We specifically cast them at an age where it would be fun to watch them grow. […] If the show clicks, we’ll follow them right through college.”
In an attempt to keep the innovative premise plausible, DeGuere hired a technical advisor and a computer analyst to supervise and provide input on the stories.
When describing the cutting-edge technology that would be depicted on the show, DeGuere stated-
“We will be technically accurate without being boring. […] Whiz Kids is a benign futuristic environment, a year or two ahead of actual computer development. […] Essentially, the stories are human-centered with every precaution being taken not to allow the computer to take on capabilities beyond the realm of reality, which would spoil the integrity of the stories.”
In June 1983, several months prior to the series premiere on CBS, the premise sparked controversy after the pilot was screened for critics and the network’s affiliates and advertisers. Following a string of news reports of teenage computer hackers gaining access to sensitive information during that summer, CBS executives met with the program’s producers in July to emphasize that story-lines should be changed so that access to other computers would be portrayed as being obtained “through legal means.” As a result, small changes were made to the original pilot and two new adult characters were written into all subsequent episodes, that of a police detective and a local newspaper reporter, which served to provide the teens with a moral compass as well as access to what would otherwise be considered “classified” information.
- Matthew Laborteaux as Richie Adler
- Todd Porter as Hamilton “Ham” Parker
- Jeffrey Jacquet as Jeremy Saldino
- Andrea Elson as Alice Tyler
- Melannie Gaffin as Cheryl Adler
- Max Gail as Llewellyn Farley
- A Martinez as Lieutenant Neal Quinn
- Madelyn Cain as Irene Adler
- Linda Scruggs as Ms. Vance
Richie Adler (Matthew Laborteaux) is a tenth-grader who lives with his mother, Irene (Madelyn Cain) and younger sister, Cheryl (Melanie Gaffin). His parents are divorced, and his father works overseas as a telecommunications engineer to several firms. Richie is an advanced computer user and receives most of his equipment from his father, who acquires obsolete equipment that is scheduled to be scrapped. Richie collects this equipment and assembles it to form “Ralf”, his pet name for his computer system. Ralf has multiple components and capabilities, including a camera which produces a facial identification system.
Richie and his teenage friends, Hamilton “Ham” Parker (Todd Porter), Jeremy Saldino (Jeffrey Jacquet) and Alice Tyler (Andrea Elson) routinely encounter mysteries which they attempt to solve using Richie’s computer skills and Ralf’s power, often tapping into other computer systems, corporate, governmental and private. The cases often involve money-hungry criminals working inside business corporations or government. Guidance is provided by Llewellen Farley (Max Gail), a reporter for the fictional newspaper the LA Gazette, whose stories are often exposés of crime and corruption. Farley has a cantankerous but mutually beneficial relationship with Lieutenant Neal Quinn (A Martinez) who is head of the local detective unit.
In most episodes, the three groups — the police (mostly led by Quinn), the media (usually Farley), and the Whiz Kids — all contribute to cracking a case and in bringing the criminals to justice. Their relationship is often conflicted, as Quinn must keep Farley from getting too much insider information, while Farley and Quinn both attempt to keep the teens out of danger. However, each case is never solved by one group alone, and they are all usually forced by circumstance to work together, each drawing from their own particular strengths and fields of expertise.
In June 1983, CBS network executives were reportedly planning for Whiz Kids to air in a Saturday night timeslot on their schedule. By August, the series had been moved to a Wednesday night timeslot and was reportedly “penciled in” for a September 28 premiere. However, Philip DeGuere had expressed concerns about a September premiere competing with late-season baseball and was instead advocating for a late October premiere. In mid-September, the decision was made to delay the planned premiere by one week. Whiz Kids premiered on CBS on Wednesday, October 5, 1983 in an 8:00 p.m. timeslot where it remained throughout the rest of the 1983 calendar year. Beginning on January 7, 1984, CBS moved the series into a Saturday night timeslot, where it remained until the series concluded on June 2, 1984.
The series was broadcast in the United Kingdom by ITV, and began on 10 March 1984 in a Saturday teatime slot, except for TVS who broadcast the series over later date and UTV which broadcast the series in a Sunday teatime slot. The series was concluded on 14 July 1984. Whiz Kids screened in New Zealand on TVNZ in 1984.
Ralf itself (or ‘himself’ as Richie’s friends call it) is a conglomeration of different machines and special effects work. In Episode 11, Richie complains that a potential Ralf-substitute does not have a disk drive, 42k, interrupts, or error correction, implying Ralf has at least these. A collection of 5.25 inch floppy disks can be seen in several episodes. Ralf also has a modem. The pilot shows Ralf as having a digital camera and a bitmapped color graphics display. Ralf’s speech synthesis capabilities are also displayed in several episodes. Prior to the premiere episode, DeGuere described the technology behind Ralf’s speech capabilities, saying “Ralf has a Votrax voice synthesizer chip. When it ‘talks’, it’s really a computer, not an actor’s voice that viewers will hear.”
Activities engaged in by the teenagers on the series include war dialing, editing hexadecimal machine code in a hex editor, brute force password cracking, denial-of-service attacks, facial recognition, speech recognition and speech synthesis, image enhancement, social engineering, and even computer dating.
The series prominently features a variety of computer equipment from the 1970s and 1980s that act as props in the show. Some of these machines include, a Gavilan portable computer, a Heath Hero robot kit, an Apple II, an Apple IIe, a Dynalogic Hyperion, an IMSAI PCS 80/30, an Enigma Machine, Commodore “PET” series (in a classroom of the kids’ school), an IBM 3279 terminal painted in black (pilot episode) and a TRS-80 Model 100.
Several pioneer companies of the personal computer industry were listed in the credits as providing technical support. Some are still around (as of 2010) but many have disappeared. They include, Apple Computer, Autodesk, Bytec Comterm, Inc., Computer Components Unlimited, Commodore Business Machines, Heath/Zenith Data Systems, CTT Data Systems, Heath Co., Dale Wilson / Code Right, GRiD Systems Corporation, Hitachi America, Inc., Interlisp, Microbot, Inc., Magnavox Co., Mattel Electronics, Photonics Technology, RadioShack, Action Computer Enterprises, Inc, Televideo Systems, Inc., Atari home computer division (makers of Atari 8-bit family), Paul Lutus, Proton Corporation, Tycom Corporation, Office Systems by Xerox Corp and Xerox Electro-Optical Company.
While electronic musical pieces make up most of the background music for the show, a number of riffs are based on classical music. The main theme is an arrangement of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #21 in C Major, and excerpts play throughout the series. Rossini’s overture from the Barber of Seville is also used repeatedly. Tschaikovsky’s ‘Love Theme’ from Romeo and Juliet is used in one episode to cue Richie’s romantic involvements.
Despite the reception from adult critics, the series established its young stars, particularly Matthew Laborteaux and Todd Porter, as popular teen idols of the mid-1980s, with pinups and articles appearing in numerous teen magazines, including 16 magazine, Bop and Teen Beat, among others. While Laborteaux had already garnered notoriety among teen audiences for his role as Albert Ingalls on the NBC family frontier drama, Little House on the Prairie, Whiz Kids launched Porter as a new fixture in the various teen magazines of the era. Prompted by reader response to the 15-year-old, in the spring of 1984 Teen Beat reported of Porter’s newfound popularity, writing “With the success of Whiz Kids, [Porter’s] life as an average American kid is over. Now, he’s going to have to deal with the problems and bonuses of being a genuine teen heartthrob.”
On October 27, 1983, “Ralf” and the teenage Whiz Kids made a crossover appearance on DeGuere’s other executive produced detective series, Simon & Simon. In the episode, entitled “Fly the Alibi Skies”, the adolescent crime-solvers use Ralf to assist the Simon brothers in capturing a murderer by hacking into a computer network linked to the San Diego International Airport. This “special appearance” by the teenage stars followed the preceding night’s episode of Whiz Kids, entitled “Deadly Access” in which Jameson Parker made a crossover appearance as his Simon & Simon character, A.J. Simon.
Whiz Kids is frequently seen on Mexican television throughout the second season of the HBO series Eastbound & Down.