The setup for Counterpart, Starz’s upcoming 10-episode thriller from Justin Marks, is not an unfamiliar one for sci-fi fans. There is a portal underneath a UN agency in Berlin that (thanks to an accident a few decades prior) split our reality into two. Sure! Now there is our world and “the other,” where all of our dopplegangers live lives that may be parallel or vastly different to our own, depending on what happened to each of us since the split.
The idea that there is a second version of us out there is so tantalizing that an agency is dedicated to making sure that — save for a some government sanctioned missions from both sides — the denizens of the two worlds remain blissfully unaware of this second reality. And while Counterpart does examine how the two worlds have fared differently (in medicine, tech, government, socially, etc), it is mostly focused on what it means to face the choices made in your life that have made you who and what you are.
Counterpart would be an okay show with a decent psychological premise on its own, but what elevates it into something essential is J.K. Simmons. When we first meet his Howard Silk, a low cog at a UN agency who has been toiling away in obscurity for decades, he’s sweet but unremarkable. What challenges him, as one would expect, is meeting his “other,” a rare experience that usually takes months of counseling to prepare for. But because of the urgency of a series of assassination plots that originated from the other side, Howard meets Howard Prime (also Simmons, of course) without preparation or explanation, and is immediately thrown into a world of espionage, mind-bending realities, and contract killers.
Simmons does his best work here with, well, himself. The two Howards are exceptionally different: our Howard is meek, affable, and without much gumption, while Howard Prime is a gun-wielding badass who only seems to really care about himself. There could be TV shows made to focus on either character just on their own, but the great fun of Counterpart is not only seeing the two interact (with surprise, disappointment, and curiosity), but in what they begin to learn from one another.
The two Howards are not the only doppleganger pairs we meet, and every duo (whether or not they meet in the show’s first few episodes) provide their actors really brilliant character work. For example, when a ruthless assassin (Sara Serraiocco) is given her other self as a target, she sees that while her double is still as damaged and lonely as she is, she also took another path from their shared childhood and became a world-famous violinist. Not all paths are so divergent — Howard’s wife Emily (Olivia Williams) in both realities ends up with or less the same job, though with vastly different relationships to each husband. When the Howards and Emilys start overlapping things become wonderfully twisted.
I won’t say too much more about the specifics of Counterpart, since the way the show peels back the layers of the other world versus ours and drops clues about who might be compromised is all part of the fun. But the series keeps things, for the most part, very focused on character, driven along by Jeff Russo’s taught score. There are glimpses of the differences in the worlds, but they don’t (yet) really matter. Instead, there is a great deal of focus on how, given a few lefts instead of a few rights in life, we might be completely different people. There’s something aspirational there and something terrifying. Are we the best version of who we could be? Who or what determines that?
Howard Prime spends most of his time with Howard filled with disappointment, even as the two casually bond over owning some of the same clothes and a shared family history. But what soon becomes clear is that Howard’s likability and genuine concern for others is ultimately more valuable than Prime’s cold skills, though both are certainly useful for their mission. Simmons plays both characters with such distinction that even when they change into each other’s clothes and into each other’s lives, it’s clear which Howard is in frame. There’s even an element of buddy cop comedy to it all (in a more serious way) in how Howard often ends up bumbling or accidentally gaining somebody’s trust by seemingly making a mistake.
Counterpart’s excellent cast is rounded out by Harry Lloyd as an arrogant director at Howard’s agency who starts to get his comeuppance, Ulrich Thomsen as a perpetually scowling Director of Operations, and Nazanin Boniadi as a mysterious but pivotal part of the overall plot against our side. Richard Schiff, Stephen Rea, and Kenneth Choi also make memorable appearances, but the series really belongs to Simmons, so much so that unfortunately when the story leaves his behind things can get a little too slow. The layers that he gives both of the Howards is impressive, but the empathy and affection one feels for our Howard that is being played, seemingly, as a pawn is enormous — as is the triumph once he starts to embrace his now altered life and what makes him, well, unique.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
Counterpart premieres Sunday, January 21st on Starz