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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An actor gets deep into character in a clever Twilight Zone

Illustration for article titled An actor gets ideep/i into character in a clever iTwilight Zone/i
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The beard is the key.

There’s a lot about The Twilight Zone episode “The Who of You” that works remarkably well; and there’s maybe a bit too much that lands with the kind of frustratingly heavy thud we’ve experienced all too often with this new generation Twilight Zone. But the beard? The one that Ethan Embry sports as the arrogant, unsuccessful actor Harry Pine? That’s unimpeachable.

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The beard serves two purposes. First off, it makes Embry practically unrecognizable at first glance. He may not have the most famous face in Hollywood, but Embry’s been an in-demand character actor for nearly 30 years, ever since he was a teenager (working back then under his birth name Ethan Randall). Embry’s the very model of a “that guy”—someone whose screen presence is familiar even when it’s hard to remember exactly what he’s been in. But with that big, bushy beard? Embry becomes anonymous again.

The beard is also a sly visual cue to what’s actually happening in this episode. At the start of “The Who Of You”—after getting bounced from another failed audition, and after getting yelled at by his girlfriend Morena (Carmel Amit) for failing to pay the power bill—Harry decides to get into character as a bandit, robbing a bank. His heist quickly goes south, but as Harry stares into the eyes of a teller named Jill (Veena Sood), who just pushed the silent alarm, he suddenly, inexplicably swaps bodies with her.

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How do we know this? Because in the body of the teller, Harry reflexively reaches up to stroke his now non-existent whiskers.

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This quickly becomes a motif. While being pursued by a police detective named Reece (played by Daniel Sunjata), Harry keeps jumping from body to body, becoming a beat-cop named Luntz (Mel Rodriguez), a barista, a jogger, a punk rocker, an old man, a little kid, and—in an especially weird trip—a psychic named Keith (Billy Porter). In nearly every case, one of the first things Harry does in his new physical shell is to reach for the beard. That’s our signal that the switch is a go.

“The Who Of You” is credited to screenwriter Win Rosenfeld, a producer whose only other IMDb writing credit up until now is for the upcoming Candyman remake (which he’s listed has having co-written with Jordan Peele and the film’s director Nia DaCosta). The director is Peter Atencio, who worked on Key and Peele and directed Peele’s Keanu. There’s an appealing confidence to their work, perhaps because they’re familiar colleagues. The story moves briskly, with plenty of wit and tension. And the cast—heavy on great character actors, perhaps not coincidentally—really throws itself into the challenges of roles that often see them imitating other people.

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Less successful? Well, not to sound like a broken record, but as with so many of these new-generation Twilight Zones, whenever a character (including Peele’s narrator) underlines the story’s moral, the narrative momentum flags. At the start of the episode, introducing the self-absorbed, perpetually aggrieved Harry, Peele says, “Up until now he’s failed to realize that he’s not the center of the world,” which… yeah, obviously. And when Harry meets Keith, the psychic asks him, “Are you being generous with your empathy?” It’s all a bit much.

Illustration for article titled An actor gets ideep/i into character in a clever iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: Dean Buscher (CBS)
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It’s much more effective when “The Who Of You” scores its points about Harry’s egotism and insensitivity more subtly. For example: Harry hardly ever seems to know the names or the ultimate fates of the people he’s jumping into. (“I’ve never really thought about it,” he tells Keith, unapologetically.) And while the people he displaces sometimes prove who they are by sharing personal details that only the people they’re talking to would know, when Harry’s in Patrolman Luntz’s body he can’t even persuade Morena of his true identity. He doesn’t know what to say.

Even if it weren’t a character study about a vain, arrogant man, “The Who Of You” would still be plenty gripping. The real pleasures of the episode are in its thoughtful plotting—including in the way Rosenfeld and Atencio hide their final twist. Early on, when Luntz is in Harry’s body, he proves who he is by telling Reece, “I know your secret.” The episode then lets that tidbit drop until the ending, when in a final switcheroo Harry jumps into Reece’s body, then shoots the new Reece-inhabited Harry. That’s when he finds out Reece’s secret: that the detective’s been having an affair with Morena. “The Who Of You” ends with Harry back with his own girlfriend, in a new, more successful persona.

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Illustration for article titled An actor gets ideep/i into character in a clever iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: Dean Buscher (CBS)

That’s a clever stinger. But it’s in keeping with the episode as a whole, which generates a lot of good moments from the idea that this extraordinary power of body-switching has been granted to a man who rarely looks beyond himself.

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Stray observations 

  • Harry is the first TV character I’ve seen in a mask since the pandemic began. Granted, he’s robbing a bank, but still!
  • I confess I didn’t recognize the slimmed-down Mel Rodriguez at first. I started Googling to see if his name was listed in the episode’s credits, and the first suggestion that came up was “Mel Rodriguez weight loss,” and I went, “Ohhh…”
  • A lot of funny throwaway lines in this episode, but my favorite may be Jill’s, “Charge him with criminal hypnosis!”
  • Also funny (and thematically on-point):when Harry jumps into the barista and tries to run from the cops, only to realize that the guy’s legs are too short for him to get a good stride going.
  • This episode’s easter egg hint from the Twilight Zone press kit/snack box I received suggests that this episode has a nod to “The Invaders.” (The hint: “The invaders who found out that a one-way ticket to the stars beyond has the ultimate price tag.”) This isn’t evident at all in the story itself. Maybe there’s a particular image that recurs between these episodes?
  • Next up: “You Might Also Like.”
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Lives in Arkansas, writes about movies, TV, music, comics, and more. Bylines in The A.V. Club, The Week, The Verge, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone.

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