As a work of entertainment, the latest iteration of The Twilight Zone has been somewhat of a mixed bag; solid production design and sharply off-kilter compositions have done a fantastic job at establishing unsettling atmosphere, but those elements are consistently undermined by writing that focuses more on concept than character. There have been growing pains, but also glimpses of potential. Unfortunately, the same can not be said about the show’s overall clumsiness as a social critique, where the universal flaws in humanity that Rod Serling was so fascinated by have been largely replaced with issue-of-the-week proselytizing. Due to the subjective nature of that type of content, it’s an element that’s been hardly worth mentioning thus far, but “Not All Men” changes that, as it offers a peculiar viewpoint on men behaving badly that might be more interestingly explored behind the camera than it is on the screen.
Things start off fairly normal (and well), as the meek Annie (a solid Taissa Farmiga) finds herself being taken advantage of in a male-dominated office because she has a tendency to default to agreeable instead of standing up for herself. This includes accepting an insistent invitation from a slickly handsome co-worker named Dylan (whom she may or may not actually like) to view a meteor shower at his home. Awkward dating rituals ensue, with her nervously checking the mirror and him swaggering around with a glass of wine while spinning cliched romance music on his hi-fi. Eventually, the celestial event begins, but these cosmic projectiles hit really close to home. When one actually strikes the back yard, the duo playfully investigates, and brings the strange rock back with them. More amorous activities ensue (nothing gets people hotter than space minerals), but suddenly Dylan starts getting a creepily aggressive, turning ominously mean.
Annie (mostly) safely extricates herself from the situation, but as she’s walking away, she spies through a window the now-enraged man smashing up his furniture. To make matters worse, her boss informs her that she will now be working alongside Dylan on a new project, a prospect she doesn’t relish on the path to promotion. This setup is refreshingly effective in establishing not only Annie’s predicament, but also her character; she clearly aims to please, but having a hard time saying no sometimes leads to uncomfortable scenarios. Were the rest of “Not All Men” dedicated to examining that type of person and telling a story that offered insight into the possibilities such a flawed nature can produce, it would have fit right in with classic TZ. However, this season has rarely been about dissecting its main characters, preferring instead to look outwards to find fault.
So, as the behavior of males across town begins to grow more and more dangerous after the arrival of these meteorites, Annie’s inner plight becomes less and less of the point. She avoids bar-room fighting, flees threatening motorcycle stalkers with her sister, escapes a newly homicidal brother-in-law, and eventually witnesses an entire town of transformed raging lunatic animals — displaying parody-levels of stereotypical ‘toxic masculinity’ — tear and burn and pillage and murder civilization to the ground. Run, Annie, run. This constant motion is accompanied by various expressions of fear, brief hypotheses on the cause of the disaster, and not much else. There’s a whiff of female empowerment sprinkled throughout, but they’re most blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments. Apparently Annie as a person just wasn’t interesting enough to writer Heather Anne Campbell (who also co-wrote the non-humans of “Six Degrees of Freedom”), so she resorts to the outside world in order to make her character relevant.
Let’s make this clear: as a kind of zombie-apocalypse thriller, “Not All Men” works very well. The mystery of the meteor and why this is happening provides just enough intrigue to what is a rapidly declining survival scenario, the escalation is steady, and tense scenes involving a birthday cake and a desperate attempt to get to the local piers are expertly shot and directed. Despite her story being abandoned in favor of increasingly sensational interactions with dudes, Annie is also a very sympathetic person, simply wanting to get on with her life while loathe to inflict harm. Tight editing and masterful pacing contribute to the overall product; as a piece of entertainment, this episode is one of the best of the season.
Where “Not All Men” goes off the rails is in its messaging. Sure, all subtlety is tossed out the window after the first use of ‘mansplaining’ is busted out, but the clichés can often border on comedic (I silently predicted that at some point a female character would be told to smile, then laughed out loud when it happened). In taking the wild, aggressive, hot-tempered, bloodthirsty aspects of its male cast to such extremes, the ensuing maniacal mayhem comes off more like a spoof than a serious metaphor — especially when the ’cause’ is finally revealed. The Twilight Zone has had a long history of looking at the world from different perspectives, but I can’t think of one moment where the classic series looked upon a specific segment of the population with such disdain and righteousness. Institutions were regularly attacked by Serling, as were those perpetuating them, but “Not All Men” takes square, cynical aim at incurable genetics as a root cause for evil.
Could anyone seriously take such a scornful and damning stance when it comes to half their fellow human beings, positing them as absolutely and without reservation innately cruel and barbaric? Could it be true that these traits may be only suppressed by the special few, those enlightened souls who possess an iron will strong enough to not kill everyone? If not, this is wonderful (but close) parody of a certain hysteria; but if so, this show just achieved what many of its stories purport to do: it has crossed into another dimension. There are captivating ideas and positions taken here, and oh what I wouldn’t give for an episode that looks into the kind of creative minds that could produce such thoughts. That would be fascinating indeed.