This Counterpart spoiler-free review is based on the first four episodes.
Take the multiverse of Fringe and add the political intrigue of The Americans (with a sprinkle of Charlie Jade for those who know it), and that’ll provide some idea of what Starz’ sci-fi thriller, Counterpart, is all about. The show pits spy versus spy in a cold war between parallel Earths where everyone has a double in the other world, and the ways in which the differences between existences can be exploited are numerous and underhanded in the extreme. Those with patience for a slow initial pace will eventually be rewarded with a rich conspiracy tale about three or four episodes in, but those looking for immediate action or spoon-fed exposition should look elsewhere.
Some viewers will no doubt tune in for the Oscar award-winning acting from J.K. Simmons (Whiplash, Law & Order), who plays both a Willie Loman-like low-level government employee and his intelligence operative doppelgänger from the other side, each named Howard Silk, and on that score, they will not be disappointed. Simmons inhabits the two characters, not with the accented prowess of Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, but with the subtle skill of a seasoned actor. The posture, the facial expressions, and the tone of voice all allow viewers to distinguish between the two Howards even when they are not in a scene together.
The audience essentially is along for the ride with the down-on-his-luck Howard as he learns for the first time that the coded messages he helps pass in the Interface department are delivered to a world much like ours, one that split off thirty years ago because of some unknown event. Before that, there was one world, and both branches share their past before the divide. But the more time that passes, the greater the differences the two worlds experience, including diverging lives for individuals and separate social, technological, and political pressures that steer history.
The thematic exploration of nature versus nurture is strong in Counterpart, and while some characters believe that a person can change, others think that someone’s true identity in both worlds cannot be denied, only obscured. In fact, the series begins with an assassin crossing over from one world to the other, and when the idea of mercy arises between her and the much nicer but less upwardly mobile Howard, she insists, “We cannot escape who we are.” Howard, whose counterpart is a much more confident but compassionless agent of the clandestine Section 2, seems set up to prove her wrong throughout the opening episodes or perhaps eventually confirm her theory by revealing a dark side.
The journey is mostly about Howard in the first couple of episodes, though, and as a result, the story takes awhile to really get going. The agents in charge of the Howard in this world, Quayle (Harry Lloyd of Manhattan) and Aldrich (Ulrich Thomsen of Banshee), who broker the discussion between the Howards as moles are discovered and conspiracies are revealed, have almost no personality in the premiere, inexplicably following Howard-Prime’s orders as he warns of dangers unknown. Viewers will have to wait until the third or fourth episodes to really care about other characters and what’s happening around them.
While this is initially a failing of Counterpart, the lack of hand-holding as the plot unfolds is refreshingly respectful of the audience’s intelligence. The setting for the conduit between worlds is modern day Berlin, for example, and German is spoken alongside American and British English with no explanation given, the skylines subtly different in each version of Earth. The predominance of germ-phobia in Earth-Prime is left to reveal its origins over time, and the nature of each Howard’s relationship with his wife, Emily (Olivia Williams of Manhattan, Dollhouse), is purposefully left vague so that its intricacies can be properly appreciated.
Some viewers are not going to like the pace, that’s certain. But for fans of dark tales of shady diplomacy, cloak-and-dagger double agent scenarios, the sci-fi multiverse concept, and thematically rich explorations of identity, Counterpart will be a welcome addition to their viewing line-up. The initial performance of J.K. Simmons and the brilliantly executed concept of a parallel world will hook viewers, and those who stick around as the supporting cast develops their personalities while the rabbit hole goes deeper and deeper will be rewarded with a compelling tale that has plenty of mysteries to unravel.
Counterpart is available on Starz Play in the UK from Friday the 28th of September.