TV Pilot Review: Counterpart

Doppelgängland 

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Premium channel Starz gets into the prestige sci-fi game with Counterpart, an espionage thriller starring J.K. Simmons and featuring spies, parallel universes, and games of Go. Although the series doesn't officially premiere until this Sunday, Starz has made the pilot available for viewing since December 10th of last year. Fringe by the way of The Americans, the Counterpart pilot offers thrills and suspense at a brisk clip and introduces us to its dizzying world with a rock solid first outing. Minor spoilers ahead...

As a hardcore sci-fi buff, I have a particular weakness for two sub-genres: time travel and parallel universes. There's just something about the exploration of roads not taken that intrigue me in a certain way; I can watch TV series such as Fringe and films like Primer all day long. So you could say that I was extremely excited when Starz first announced Counterpart, a parallel universe thriller with the ever-so versatile J.K. Simmons attached. And from the pilot episode alone, I'm happy to say that Counterpart is off to a great start.

J.K. Simmons (Juno, Whiplash) stars as Howard Silk, a low-level bureaucrat living in Berlin stationed at an unnamed government agency. A life-long "interface man" in the show's parlance, Silk wades through the rigamarole of his life with little ambition and a sleepy routine: a casual game of Go with a friend in the park, a mysterious exchange of top-secret coded phrases with anonymous co-workers (the nature of which becomes more clear as the series progresses), a visit to his comatose wife in a local hospital. When asking for a promotion, his boss dismissively reminds him that he's been with the program for thirty years, and "if it was going to happen, it would have happened." However, Silk's entire world is upended when a mysterious operative breaches the agency, supposedly in pursuit of an equally enigmatic assassin named Baldwin. The mysterious operative? None other than Howard Silk himself. From a parallel world, this doppelgänger is confident, assertive, and brusque in all the ways that Howard Prime is not. We also learn a little more about the nature of both realities and the agency itself as the episode unfurls: originally there was only one Earth; however, an incident 30 years ago duplicated the fabric of reality, and little changes began differentiating the two (think the butterfly effect, but with parallel universes instead of time travel). Eventually, a top-secret facility (where both Howards work) was built upon the one place in the world where both parallel Earths intersect, forming an uneasy detente between the two planes of existence.

Right out of the gate, J.K. Simmons does some serious heavy lifting straight from the Orphan Black playbook, playing two completely different versions of the same person. The best parts of the pilot pit Howard against Howard as they square off and compare their lives: their upbringing, their taste in music, their food preferences, and even the relationships with their wives. These scenes are simply mesmerizing, and touch upon some deep existential reflections on roads not taken and how different singular moments can have profound impacts upon one's life. A left instead of a right, an up instead of a down, a yes instead of a no - our lives are a series of branching paths, and to see the different consequences of these binary choices shape one man's entire life is compelling to say the least. “The difference between you and me could be a single moment,” counterpart Howard says. “One little thing gone wrong.” 

And although watching J.K. Simmons flexing his Oscar-winning talents never gets old and is clearly the main attraction of the series, the other aspects of Counterpart are no slouch either. The espionage thriller angle is clever and intriguing, with the first episode already having one of the Howards impersonate the other to flush out the assassin. And while the rest of the cast doesn't have much to do in the pilot, they more than pull their own weight. One standout, at least from the premiere, is Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones), who portrays Howard Prime's boss Peter Quayle. In a role that easily could have been the written as the unlikeable supervisor stereotype, Lloyd brings a vulnerability and warmth you wouldn't expect, conveying the feeling that the situation is just as over his head as it is for our Howard. Rounding out the cast is Jamie Bamber (Battlestar Galactica) in full smarm-mode as Howard's dick brother-in-law and Olivia Williams as Howard's comatose wife. Williams obviously doesn't have much agency in the first episode, but you don't cast a veteran actress like her just to play a comatose body in a hospital bed, so I'm excited to see what her character (or characters) will bring to the table. 

Perhaps I'm biased as Counterpart is right up my alley in terms of concept, but this pilot seemed exceptionally solid. I'm quite excited to see J.K. Simmons pull double duty every week on my TV screen, and hopefully the creative team can put out more hours of mind-bending thrills like this one.

GRADE: A-