This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Starz’s “Counterpart” could aptly be described as John Le Carre meets Philip K. Dick. It is essentially an espionage thriller, but the two nations involved in the spy vs. spy game are actually duplicates of each other—one on the Earth you and I share, the other on an alternate reality right alongside it. 30 years ago, an experiment not only opened a portal to this alternate reality but essentially created it. At first, these two realities were identical, but they quickly diverged. Imagine the butterfly effect multiplied in a universe just like our own. What if one less scientific discovery was made? What if Steve Jobs wasn’t encouraged to create his tech? What if an electoral college vote swung differently? Over the three decades, the two Earths, if you will, have become radically different, and trade secrets and information not unlike East and West Berlin once did. And into this crazy sci-fi idea, creator Justin Marks thrusts an everyman named Howard Silk, played to absolute perfection by Oscar winner J.K. Simmons. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that he also plays his doppelganger.
The Howard of our world is an average guy living a relatively dull life. He works at a U.N. building doing strange work involving code phrases, but he has no idea what the company he works for actually does. He’s basically the guy with the lowest clearance level at the building that holds some of the world’s most phenomenal government secrets. He’s allowed a peek behind the curtain when the other Howard "comes through" on a visa from the other side. People can travel back and forth in "Counterpart," but it’s usually under strict governmental supervision, trading information or tracking people who may be trying to defect. The other Howard is the opposite of the one on Earth. He’s wisecracking, tough-talking, and trained like an assassin. How could two people with the same childhood go on such divergent paths?
The idea that we are the sum of our decisions, both major and minor, is a fascinating thematic underpinning of the espionage tale at the heart of “Counterpart.” Howard tells, well, himself that an assassin has come through from his side of the tunnel, and they believe he has an unexpected target, Emily Silk (Olivia Williams), Howard’s wife. Why would anyone want to kill Howard’s wife? It’s a question that starts a string of political machinations, and introduces us to power players in both worlds played by Richard Schiff, Harry Lloyd, and Stephen Rea, among others.
The premiere of “Counterpart” is a clever “what if” experience, introducing us to this world with flair and confidence. One of the first notes I took was “I hope this doesn’t get too convoluted or self-serious,” and that shoe drops relatively quickly, with subsequent episodes that take the arguably silly concept with a deadly straight face. The cast, especially Simmons, keeps everything engaging, but this is the kind of series that’s going to constantly push against that edge of being just too out-there to engage with it, and it’s going to have to be more playful if it’s going to succeed long term. It too quickly becomes more Le Carre and less Dick, focusing on the political games being played between the two sides when the strength of the series is really the story of an everyman who realizes he’s capable of a lot more than he ever imagined. At its best, “Counterpart” actually recalls Hitchcock in the way Howard is the classic Hitch hero thrust into a complex web of lies that he never even imagined existed.
And, of course, Simmons is totally up to the challenge of playing that kind of hero. He’s great in a dual role in the way that Tatiana Maslany was great in multiple ones on “Orphan Black.” It’s amazing how quickly you’ll be able to tell the two Howards apart, purely in the way they carry themselves and how confidently they approach the rest of the world. And the two roles play into Simmons’ strengths in very different ways. The Bourne-esque Howard from the other side not only reminds you of the energy he brought to “Whiplash” but makes you wish he’d try a full-blown “January Neeson” type action film role, while the meager Howard fits the softer side of Simmons’ skill set perfectly. We completely believe him as both a soft-spoken, loyal husband, and a bitter action hero in the same show. There are elements that don’t work in “Counterpart,” and more of them with each passing episode, but Simmons keeps it often riveting. It’s a performance you simply have to see. Actually, it's two.
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