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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

An alien invader toys with a grieving couple’s emotions in an overly corny Twilight Zone

Illustration for article titled An alien invader toys with a grieving couple’s emotions in an overly corny iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS
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If it wasn’t for the cast of “A Human Face”—and the director—this Twilight Zone would be kind of a waste. Whatever goodwill the episode builds up in its effective first half is largely squandered by a second half that just keeps restating its primary point over and over, bluntly.

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As with our previous episode, “8,” the premise suggests a fairly classic horror story scenario. Jenna Elfman and Christopher Meloni play Barbara and Robert, a married couple in the process of packing up their house to move out, not long after losing their teenage daughter Mags (Tavi Gevinson). When a cosmic flare flashes outside, the husband and wife soon find a grotesque, toothy, wormlike alien gnawing on the old furniture in their basement.

They flee upstairs and the alien follows; but along the way it shape-shifts into something that looks and sounds like Mags. Holed up in their bedroom, they face a choice. Robert is absolutely certain the alien is still as dangerous as it looked downstairs. But Barbara thinks maybe some miracle occurred with the flare. Maybe Mags is back? And even if not… “It’s really nice to hear that voice.”

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It’s hard to overstate just how good Elfman and Meloni are in “A Human Face,” especially in the scenes where their characters aren’t in fear for their life. The opening pre-flare/pre-alien sequence is a fragile little gem, with Barbara plastering on a smile while she talks about the phone being out. Robert is busy taking the pictures off Mags’ wall and boxing them up, hoping his wife won’t linger around the room’s many potential triggers for melancholy; but he takes a moment to carefully explain that the phone is bundled with the internet, which has already been cancelled. “A Human Face” is credited to Alex Rubens, who wrote one of season one’s worst episodes (“The Comedian”) and also one of its better ones (“Blurryman”). In the early going at least, he pens some quietly poignant moments.

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Gevinson is quite good also, in a tricky role. The former Rookie editor and millennial superstar has been doing more acting lately, often landing in parts that take advantage of her unusual screen presence, playing off her striking looks and monotone voice. She’s a convincing alien impostor, initially repeating phrases like “Can we get pizza?” and “Can you pick me up after practice?” that she seems to know will break Barbara’s heart.

“A Human Face” was directed by Christina Choe, who did a good job with season one’s otherwise fairly blah “Not All Men” and a great job with her 2018 debut feature, the haunting identity-stealing drama Nancy. Here, working with the limited location of one dimly lit suburban house, Choe plays around a lot with the few light sources, sometimes framing the characters so that they become indistinct silhouettes, set against the sun streaming through a window. She also gives Elfman and Meloni the space to develop their dynamic.

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Illustration for article titled An alien invader toys with a grieving couple’s emotions in an overly corny iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS

But where this episode goes after all that thoughtful, sensitive setup? Well, that’s a letdown. Ostensibly, the arrival of “Mags” pushes Barbara and Robert to reopen old wounds. She was too inattentive with their child; he was too cold. (“You want a do-over,” he snaps dismissively.) The makeshift Mags fuels their fire, telling her “dad” that he was never a real father, “just a guy who had a kid,” and telling them both that, “Neither of you cared about who I really was.”

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This is all a bit generic, as far as family squabbles go; and the dialogue hits its points too hard. Granted, there’s not enough time in this compact episode (another one that’s about a half-hour!) to recap the nitpicky details from a decade-plus of mediocre parenting. But even reduced to the bullet points, the big three-way argument that dominates the second half of this story feels like it goes on forever, without saying much of anything. Again, if not for the fierce commitment of the actors and the artful touches of the director, much of the second half of “A Human Face” would be a hard grind with minimal reward.

The episode does end fairly well though, with “Mags” finally admitting that she’s a “biological pacification drone” and “a machine for conquest” and “an aspect of an invading force.” This would seem to vindicate Robert’s skepticism. (“It used the word ‘conquer,’ Barbara!”) But Barbara says it doesn’t matter. She coaxes her husband to walk out of the house with her and their “daughter”… into a street where they find all sorts of blissfully happy families, walking along with their own biological pacification drones.

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Illustration for article titled An alien invader toys with a grieving couple’s emotions in an overly corny iTwilight Zone/i
Photo: CBS

Anyone looking for a larger theme to this whole Twilight Zone season might note that a few of this year’s episodes (like “Downtime,” and especially “You Might Also Like”) end with the characters happily accepting what could be a pretty bleak fate. It’s also worth noting that one of the major ideas of this episode is that people can be led to embrace their own destruction, if in the process they get to air some old grievances and bury some old regrets.

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But all of that goes hand-in-hand with the second half of this story, which for me is less indelible. When I think of “A Human Face” in the future, I’ll probably try to focus on the fine first half… and in particular on how Jenna Elfman looks both stricken and hopeful when she hears her daughter’s voice again. Now there’s a human face.


Stray observations

  • Your easter egg quote for this episode: “Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major—a collection of question marks.” Even casual Twilight Zone fans should be able to peg that one to another of the original series’ best-known episodes, “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit,” about toy dolls who think they’re real (and who are just looking for love).
  • I had some hiccups with my regular set-top box while streaming this episode, and had to switch to a different device. For some reason my CBS app on that device defaulted automatically to the Descriptive Video Service option, with a voice on the soundtrack explaining the images on the screen. It took me a second to realize this wasn’t part of the episode—because it sounded a little like the translation app in “8,” which I’d just watched—but as soon as I figured out what was going on, I switched it off. Still, it was an interesting experience, because the DVS sometimes directed my attention to the elements within the frame that were most important to the story. Give it a try sometime!
  • Next: “A Small Town.”
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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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