Ever wondered “what if”? Counterpart prods at the consequences and results of actioning that wondering, in a stylish, bleak, post-Cold War thriller.
The Show: Counterpart
The Network: STARZ
The Genre: Science fiction/espionage/thriller
The Challenge: Give a show four episodes with which to draw you in, impress you, challenge you, make you feel something deeply. Four episodes for the chance to find out if you care what happens to the characters you’re watching enough to become invested in the story. If after all that, it does none of those things for you? Then no biggie. You gave it a good shot and you can move on. But if you love it, you’ll be glad you stuck around.
The Premise: Set in Germany, there’s a misty post-Cold War aura surrounding Counterpart. In the trailer J.K. Simmons’ Howard Silk confesses that he’s been working at the same old building for three decades. But what scares him is that he doesn’t “know what we do here”. So Howard works the same monotonous job, daily. He’s a faithful husband, who visits his comatose wife (Olivia Williams) every night. By all means, Howard Silk is your average, slightly dreary, orderly man.
And then it all goes to pot.
Howard Silk comes face-to-face with an exact replica of himself. And it ain’t no clone. During the Cold War, the East Germans experimented until they opened a doorway to a parallel version of our world. Imagine a world identical to your own except for the choices you’d made. The choices other people have made. And if that wasn’t enough for your brain, imagine the danger at the heart of this concept if someone who shouldn’t slips through that doorway–and can forever change the course of the future in another dimension.
Counterpart is such a mish-mash of so many shows that it actually burps out an impressive amalgamation of originality.
Just watching the first four episodes of Counterpart will send you into flashback mode. Fringe? Check. Orphan Black? Check. The Americans? A fainter check. Even the bleakness of tone and the seemingly too-normal life Howard Silk leads reminds us of Gary Oldman’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. We’re talking clandestine meetings in the dark and hush-hush cat-and-mouse chases across a world our protagonist thought he knew, but he really doesn’t.
It’s our immediate affection and connection to Howard that draws us into that conclusion. Simmons is so undeniably watchable as the withdrawn, monotone Howard that it’s incredulous to think the same actor is playing his doppelgänger. That’s ‘Harold Prime’.
The concept of multiverses is nothing new anymore. Except this time, and we can probably say this without spoiling your viewing, there are no Demagorgons about. The premise is that with East Germany’s experimentation, they created a doorway to a parallel world–a far more advanced world. And though it’s far-fetched, with the amount of cover-ups and seriously messed-up experimentation that occurred during that time, it’s probably the perfect setting.
All focus is on the riveting performance Simmons gives as two opposite doppelgängers. But through Howard Silk’s mild-mannered approach, we as an audience are slowly but surely getting reeled in by the plot, at the same glacial pace Howard is too. And actually, it shouldn’t work. The smoky, musty setting is enough to tell us it’s going to be a bleak, troubling affair. Yet helplessly, we find ourselves needing to know more.
Counterpart is not the hook, line, sinker type of television at all. But you’ll find it had you stuck to your chair episodes ago, and you can’t move. You can’t do anything but watch this strange game unfold.
You can’t get too much J.K. Simmons–but he’s ultimately backed by a super strong ensemble.
Though J.K. Simmons is merely inches away from infallible in this role(s), the first few episodes are very Howard-centric. So despite the talented supporting cast–particularly Harry Lloyd and Ulrich Thomsen–you don’t really see much of their personality dripping through in the first couple of episodes. By all means, Lloyd and Thomsen are deserving of raucous applause for their performances. Sara Serraiocco is spectacular as the mysterious Baldwin.
A quiet standout is perhaps Harry Lloyd, whose director of Howard’s agency, Peter Quayle, is significantly younger and more fresh-faced than the others. Yet he holds his own in sternness and power when it comes to playing his position. Where you’d expect him to be brash and, well, youthful–he doesn’t fall victim to that. He’s calculated, mild-mannered and soft-spoken. Generally, he seems reasonable without a speck of dirt on him. And audiences will have to stay and watch these characters expand because it takes time. The heavy focus on Simmons’ dual role cannot be ignored. Obviously, the downside is the effect it has on the other characters.
We say: stick with it. You may have exhausted your clone bank balance with Orphan Black, but this is not it. Both Howards have had the same experiences. And both Howards are not immune to the vast differences between them. Unwittingly, even after the first episode tease-aired, you can already see Howard Prime’s influence rubbing off on our version of Howard.
Performances from the excellent ensemble await us–they do. But it really would be a crime to let Simmons’ work here–subtle and creeping–go amiss with a blink of an eye.
Counterpart won’t just dish out the answers and obvious clues in the first few episodes: this is a slow burn. A very slow burn.
As stated before, Counterpart isn’t really the kind of show that’ll wow you with its first couple of episodes. In fact, sometimes it’s a bit of a slog just to get through it. But belief is what we implore of you. There are shows that explode right out of the gate. However, Counterpart is not so much a firework show as it is a sizzling campfire in the woods. It’s sending up smoke and it’s small. But it’ll cook that pigeon you hunted, to perfection.
The real question is, for all of us, is how long are we prepared to wait?
It’s all good saying Counterpart is a slow-burn as reason for a viewer to carry on watching. But how do we guess where the breaking point is before someone switches it off for a snooze? However, what’s refreshing and meticulous about Counterpart is that it doesn’t spoon-feed you. It doesn’t hand-hold you through a plot-point to ensure you understand. Rather, it leaves you to your own devices. In the premiere, Quayle hastily tries to explain to Howard about the whole ‘doorway situation’:
Quayle: “When this door opened, our paths began to branch off. More and more, over time. This isn’t even my job to tell you–what you need to know is that we keep a lid on it.”
A lid on what? It’s frustrating, the hints they drop. And it’s also immensely rewarding when you understand. From the blueprint of the show, it’s not going to be A to B. It’ll be a zig-zag of hidden doors and backdoors and distrust. And honestly? The more time they invest into building this bizarre world, the more rewarding it’ll all be. It requires waiting, yes. But that doesn’t mean Counterpart leaves you with nothing to think about.
The trailer teases doppelgängers and beyond-belief storylines. However, at Counterpart’s heart is a question, or a philosophy, that is not outlandish at all.
It is quite easy to lose yourself in Counterpart’s premise. To give an understatement, it’s completely outlandish. Which is fitting, because the whole jumping-between-dimensions-and-or-time-and-space is Outlander’s thing (STARZ, are you having us on?). But right at the core of Counterpart, like most shows, is an incredibly thick smearing of humanity. The otherworldly prospect of having a doorway between parallel worlds and an assassin jumping through is bananas. But Howard sums it up rather well as he plays the board-game Go with Andrei:
Howard: “Life is just the sum of our choices. You do something and I react. You do it often enough, my reaction changes. It changes. All the time. Those choices define who we are.”
Andrei: “Who we are is not about choice. You are who you are. I am what i am. The game only ends one way.”
This isn’t the be-all-end-all of justification of life. You can see both men have very different views. But Counterpart is asking: what if? What if you’d forgotten your coffee run this morning? Then we’d get into the muddled world of physics and alternate universes for every choice you made. And unsurprisingly, in the era of television shows where everything likely has a meaning, the choice of the game Go is not a coincidence either. Firstly, we have the title sequence. Secondly, the premise of the game itself. Black and white for the duality of the worlds; each side moving as part of one elaborate game. Each ‘side’ gaining intel on the other via the doorway. But always sticking to the rules. Because what happens if you break them?
Well, in this case, it seems it loosens an assassin.
FINAL VERDICT: STARZ may well have landed the first punch of 2018, but you have to really let it boil to shreds before it starts to pay off.
Is STARZ taking a punt too far or is it completely justified? At this point, honestly, we don’t know. Four episodes in and nothing’s truly leapt out at us. A part of that perhaps is reviewer bias and expectation. Another part is simply because in four episodes, we haven’t had a great deal of much other than Simmons. Now that’s never something to disappoint.
But with such a stellar cast and some truly great finds (Serraiocco is a gem) it’s about time to utilise your full artillery, Counterpart. And truly, the last disadvantage is that we’re reviewing the first four episodes of something that truly looks like a slow-burn that’ll pay off big time.
Truly, we’re crossing our fingers and toes that Justin Marks’ sterling premiere caught your eye. With Morten Tyldum’s careful, seamless direction, it feels almost like the production’s spun out of time, away from the debris of dystopia and into something new entirely. Frankly, some viewers will not enjoy the pacing. But the prospect of old-fashioned espionage fused with the endlessly appealing multiverse concept, headed up by a mesh of brilliant actors old and new, Counterpart just feels like it’s something promising looming over the horizon. There are so many possibilities to explore with its rich storytelling technique and intricate explorations of self-identity that it would be surely a mistake not to give it a chance.
No, it didn’t blow us away. Not in four episodes. But boy, do we want to keep peeling back the layers of this complex, diligently crafted world.