More than five years after its cancellation, Syfy’s Face Off arrives on Netflix today.
This is not, to be clear, the Nicolas Cage face-carving and -swapping movie Face Off. (That movie is on AMC if you want to watch it.)
This is a reality TV competition like Top Chef which features special effects makeup artists. Whether it’s new to you or you’ve missed it, it’s nice to have these two seasons back and more accessible.
As in most talent competitions, Face Off’s producers ask its contestants to create their art in absurdly condensed amounts of time. Sometimes they work in teams, collaborating and splitting the workload.
The show’s episodes and challenges highlight different techniques and have different themes, usually in the universe of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy.
One of its best challenges—that helped hook me on the show—came in season one, where the artists had to create realistic human makeup for themselves to see if their loved ones would recognize them or not.
Creature makeup that can take weeks or even months is done in mere hours and days, and to Face Off’s great credit, the drama tends to focus on the work itself.
There are so many moments of tension about whether a form will come out of a mold or not, never mind the last-minute rush to apply and paint.
Most episodes begin with a quick foundation challenge, which tends to involve makeup and pre-existing prosthetic pieces applied to models.
The spotlight challenge gives the artists more time to create a much-more complex piece, and then apply it to their model.
I interviewed two Face Off models about what they go through on set, and it’s considerable.
The artists’ work is presented on those models to a panel of industry experts—Glenn Hetrick, Ve Neill, Neville Page, Patrick Tatopoulos, and Lois Burwell—and guest judges, who critique it and talk to the artists about their work.
One person is sent home, and you know how this works.
As of today, Netflix is streaming seasons four and five. Face Off has already been streaming elsewhere: Peacock currently has seasons nine to 13, the final five seasons. And you can buy all 13 seasons on Amazon and elsewhere.
Its presence on Netflix may introduce it to new audiences, like happened with Suits, though Face Off has far fewer people waking into rooms and slamming blue folders down on the table and saying “goddammit!” (I’ve been watching Suits.)
Speaking of suits: Season four is the first that the challenges included full-body makeup. It’s also the first with host McKenzie Westmore’s father—and Oscar-winning effects artist—Michael Westmore as mentor.
This is not a Christian Siriano or Tim Gunn role, as Michael Westmore just does a quick walk through, offers light advice, and then vanishes.
To be honest, Face Off is not quite Project Runway or Top Chef.
As you can see if you read through my coverage during its life on Syfy, I always found Face Off’s talent to be outstanding, but the episodes themselves, though, could be formulaic to the point of being clunky. Hence:
- my season four review: Face Off needs to take off its inflexible mask and free McKenzie
- my season five review: The one thing Face Off needs to do next season: change everything
- my season 11 review: What Face Off is doing this season is unexpected and wonderful
The show did keep evolving, as I wrote about in my season 11 review. In season eight, for example, producers added short films for the finale, allowing us to see the makeup in a real-life context.
Could Face Off return for new seasons?
Five years ago, when Syfy cancelled Face Off after its 13th season, fans rallied to save it.
Alas, Syfy—a network that abandoned unscripted TV after Face Off ended—owns the show, so it couldn’t find new life elsewhere.
Executive producer Dwight D. Smith, whose production company Mission Control Media produced Face Off (and most recently HGTV’s Barbie DreamHouse Challenge), told me back then “We always knew that Face Off had really, really passionate, hardcore fans, and I think they’re proving that to be true. It means a lot to all of us on the show to hear their disappoint, their sense of loss, and their hope to keep the show alive.”
He also told me, “There’s tremendous potential for the show to go far beyond where it is now. So for us, it’s disappointing, at least for now, we won’t be able to do that.”
With quite a few older and beloved reality TV shows and formats returning, I think it’s time for Face Off to come back, too (maybe on Peacock). And exposing it to new audiences on Netflix is a great first start, and may just show NBCUniversal that there’s a lot of life behind the masks and makeup.