Whiz Kids
May 8, 2012 7:25 PM   Subscribe

In the early 80’s, personal computers were a new innovation. Films like WarGames made it seem as if a kid with a keyboard could hack into anything: a school or corporate mainframe, NORAD, the US nuclear arsenal or your neighborhood bank. Hoping to capitalize on this, in 1983 CBS premiered a show which could have been considered WarGames’ intellectual successor. It featured a group of resourceful kids who solved crimes by hacking and cracking, led by Matthew Laborteaux, child star of Little House on the Prairie, and advised by a Gavilan SC-toting, mustachioed reporter played by Max Gail, formerly of the show Barney Miller. Whiz Kids lasted only a single season: 18 episodes, but all of them live on in cyberspace, on YouTube. Complete episode links contained within.

”Activities included things like war dialing (one kid even mentions WarGames), editing hexadecimal machine code in a hex editor, brute force password cracking, denial-of-service attacks, emulation, facial recognition, speech recognition and speech synthesis, image enhancement, social engineering, and even computer dating. In almost every episode, the kids (sometimes at the instigation of Farley) perform what would be considered serious criminal acts within a few years of the show airing (if not during its airing); the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was first passed in 1984."
Unfortunately, the quality of the episodes isn't perfect. They were obviously transferred to digital format from a tape recording.

Episode 1: "Programmed for Murder" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 2: "Fatal Error" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 3: "Deadly Access" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 4: "Candidate for Murder" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 5: "A Chip off the Old Block" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 6: "Airwave Anarchy" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 7: "Return of the Big Rocker" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 8: "The Wrong Mr. Wright" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 9: "Red Star Rising" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 10: "The Network" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 11: "Watch Out!" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 12: "Amen to Amen-Re" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 13: "Maid in the USA" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 14: "The Lollypop Gang Strikes Back" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 15: "The Sufi Project" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 16: "Father's Day" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 17: "Altaira" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Episode 18: "May I Take Your Order Please?" Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

There were also two crossovers with the show Simon and Simon, one on each show. Here's a video of the full Simon and Simon episode, at Hulu.
posted by zarq (41 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
This is one show I remember fondly (I was big into computers back then), but can never convince anyone that it existed. I can even remember some of the plots based on those episode titles.

But I am not going to watch it again. Some things are better left as memories.
posted by AndrewStephens at 7:28 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

First link in this post is to the entire WarGames movie, by the way. Video is unrestricted! Enjoy. :)
posted by zarq at 7:28 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel like there's some dull banging at the back of my skull reminding me that this show existed, but I otherwise have no memory of it.

(There's also a sequel to War Games: WarGames: The Dead Code. I'd just like to say that it's not very good.)
posted by Mezentian at 7:29 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was once in high school, and this girl shouted at me "It's Albert from Little House on the Prairie!" So I guess you could say I used to look a lot like Matthew Laborteaux. I ended up going out with her friend who looked like a midget version of Natalie Merchant. Ah... the 80s!
posted by jonp72 at 7:37 PM on May 8, 2012

HOLY CRAP A GAVILAN! I used to have one of those, it was utterly awesome. I somehow managed to scam a fair number of Infocom games into running on the thing, which was otherwise only used for Wordstar around the house.
posted by majick at 7:45 PM on May 8, 2012

The only fan letter I ever wrote was to this show. Nearly 30 years later I remain shocked that I am as big a nerd as I turned out to be. No one ever believes me that this show existed!
posted by marylynn at 7:46 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Before the popularization of the internet, any time someone learned of my interest in computers, the very next thing they would do is jokingly ask me if I could hack the IRS. Sometimes not jokingly. I'm not sure what planted this seed in the everyone's head, but I'm relieved that it's over.
posted by gngstrMNKY at 7:49 PM on May 8, 2012

I *loved* this show. Blessings upon ye, and thy house, unto the fifth generation.
posted by thudthwacker at 7:49 PM on May 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Damn. I thought I was one of the few who remembered this.
posted by jonmc at 7:52 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seeing as Simon and Simon had as a cast member Chad Allen, who played Tommy Westphall on St. Elsewhere, I think this is evidence that Whiz Kids never actually existed, and was just imagined by an autistic child.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:06 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

Which episode has the villain-of-the-week torture (or try to kill?) the Whiz Kids' cop buddy with some kind of sonic device?
posted by oh yeah! at 8:12 PM on May 8, 2012

HOLY CRAP! I worked at Gavilan, and I never heard of this show.

That machine was truly ahead of its time.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:14 PM on May 8, 2012 [4 favorites]

I watched this as a kid and enjoyed it greatly.

A computer magazine at the time published code (in BASIC, I'm sure) for a program like the one they used to make the actors seem like skillful typists. The program would display pre-determined text, character by character, in response to arbitrary keystrokes, so you could appear to flawlessly produce that text as quickly as you could wiggle your fingers.
posted by Songdog at 8:18 PM on May 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Shit, that is some pornstache on Max Gail.
posted by blucevalo at 8:19 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

That Gavilan SC is something else, though. I do not remember that.
posted by Songdog at 8:21 PM on May 8, 2012

Somewhere in the editing process I seem to have dropped an entire sentence from the end of this post. The third episode of Whiz Kids was "Deadly Access," and that's the one that crosses over with Simon and Simon.
posted by zarq at 8:22 PM on May 8, 2012

I remember this show! It was the first thing I ever taped on our brand new (at the time) big expensive VCR. It starred A Martinez as the police captain.

There was one episode where they helped a guy escape from jail by playing a game he had created so people could help him figure it out, and another where The Government took all of the one kid's computers.

It even fit the team makeup stereotypes: the main guy, the athlete, the black guy, and the girl.

I can't believe other people remember this show...
posted by booksherpa at 8:33 PM on May 8, 2012

I could have sworn it was on for more than one season. But yeah, so very eighties.
posted by GuyZero at 9:07 PM on May 8, 2012

I totally remember this show.
posted by no relation at 9:17 PM on May 8, 2012

"What are you doing, homework?"
"Nope. Going after the Caramilk secret."
posted by Flashman at 9:38 PM on May 8, 2012

Hadn't seen War Games since seeing it in the theater in 1983. What a trip. The scene in which Matthew Broderick's character hacks a phone booth with a pop-top cracked me up.

Other weird bits: in one scene, in the background you hear some radio or TV chatter in which they talk about a "a prophylactic recycling center" (44:50), and there's another scene in which Dabney Coleman's character hands some chewed gum to another character -- and she sticks it in her mouth (52:10)... wtf?
posted by smcameron at 9:48 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I remember that show!
posted by mike3k at 10:15 PM on May 8, 2012

I completely loved this show as a kid, and I can say this show is partly responsible for my current career as a programmer. Didn't they have one of those Heathkit robots? I also recall them being on the cover of Compute magazine at one point.

That being said I am not sure I am going to watch any of the episodes. These cherished childhood shows almost never live up to my memories.
posted by dhalgren at 10:25 PM on May 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hah! Another Commodore Kid from the 8-bit Micro Era, here. I fondly remember this show.

From CBM machines to DOS...

Then, as a mainframe MCP console jockey...

Now, a Bash prompt monster on GNU/Linux hosts....

Yeah.... Mom and Dad would always wonder, where and how far I could soar....

Turns out, a thousand miles away from home, and the last of those who love me...


posted by PROD_TPSL at 10:57 PM on May 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh wow, I had totally forgotten about this show! This, WarGames, and all that early 80's computer stuff had a huge effect on me.

By 1983 or 1984 I would have had my C64 which was my main computer for at least 6 years, and the one I remember most fondly.
posted by wildcrdj at 11:01 PM on May 8, 2012

Loved this show. Envious of Richie's unimaginable wealth of equipment (hundreds of thousands of dollars worth in those days). A crush on Alice, but she was so much older than me that I never had a chance...

Heh, I'm going to watch some videos just for that crazy dissonance of seeing your crush, exactly when how you fell in love infatuation with, yet somehow instead of being a beautiful older women, is a little girl. GLITCH IN THE MATRIX!!!
posted by -harlequin- at 11:14 PM on May 8, 2012

posted by PapaLobo at 12:41 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

The theme tune from this has been stuck in my head since the 80s. They showed it in the UK too.
posted by memebake at 12:59 AM on May 9, 2012

One of my very back-burnered projects was to do a scene-by-scene contextual playover of the computer/electronic technology of this show, as well as what was being referenced in the various materials.

I am glad it's out there, somewhere. It really did fall between the cracks.
posted by jscott at 1:00 AM on May 9, 2012

One regular occurrence that stuck in my brain was him running an autodialler to an accoustic coupler modem (300baud!!!) and dumping a password dictionary or a phone list into while he went away for a day or three.

When he came back he had all he needed.

I wanted one of those...
posted by arzakh at 2:41 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why have I never even heard of this show?
posted by scalefree at 3:07 AM on May 9, 2012

I was 5 when this show came out, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Haven't seen it since, not sure if I want to...
posted by KGMoney at 4:44 AM on May 9, 2012

Songdog you have seen the modern take on the same program, Hacker Typer.

Whiz kids even made it over to the UK, Saturday tea times on BBC 1. Around the same time the BBC were showing The Red Hand Gang in the after school slot, so it seem a logical follow on.

Going to make some time this evening to watch an episode or two.
posted by Z303 at 5:41 AM on May 9, 2012

Songdog, my older brother made up the screens of text that appeared in the movie "The Pelican Brief" when Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington searches WESTLAW to research their case. (He worked in tech support for West at the time.)

Not A Spoiler: he was very excited, but you can't really even see the screen. *sigh*
posted by wenestvedt at 8:10 AM on May 9, 2012

The scene in which Matthew Broderick's character hacks a phone booth with a pop-top cracked me up.

That actually worked. At some point in the distant past you could do the same thing by interting a paper clip into the center hole of mouthpiece. If you found an old enough phone it still worked until the late 80s. They started glueing on the microphone cover and interting a piece of plastic to prevent people from doing it. After all that you could still do it by cutting the steal wire cover running to the handset, pushing a pin through the red wire and grounding it against something.
posted by Ad hominem at 8:41 AM on May 9, 2012 [4 favorites]

There's a Wargames sequel, and it's not a Jim Sting and Malvin spinoff? Mr. Potato Head? Mr. Potato Head?!
posted by steef at 8:48 AM on May 9, 2012

I loved this as a kid. And Alice was the daughter on ALF!

Not going to be foolish enough to watch the episodes, but I do think Wargames still holds up pretty well.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:55 AM on May 9, 2012

Alice. ALF.

Mind blown.

Wow. I never realized.
posted by zarq at 10:27 AM on May 9, 2012

HowTF did I miss this show? I watched PBS. I was a nerd in 1983. :(
posted by DU at 11:20 AM on May 9, 2012

Wait, the mom's name was Irene Adler? How did I not notice that at the time?
posted by Karmakaze at 1:23 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Alice. ALF.
Mind blown.
Wow. I never realized.

Soooo... I had the same crush twice - and never knew?
posted by -harlequin- at 4:53 PM on May 9, 2012

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