Dual universes, same actor playing multiple characters, espionage thriller with sci-fi elements — yawn. We’ve all seen that before. On the surface, Starz’s “Counterpart” seems to be a new addition into the canon of works we’ve seen a million times, but with a tight, smart plot and some virtuoso performances, it manages to stand out from the pack.
Set in Berlin, “Counterpart” centers upon Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash”), an aging, lowly bureaucrat who is trying to finally move up the corporate ladder while also trying to remain hopeful after his wife enters a coma as a result of an accident. He is thrust into the center of an incredible conflict when he meets his “other,” a physically identical version of himself who lives in another dimension. He also discovers that the very building he works with is the “crossing” into the other dimension.
Purely based on the premise, this show could have fallen horribly flat with an ineffective portrayal of Silk and his other. Luckily, J.K. Simmons goes above and beyond “serviceable” and provides the single most compelling reason to watch this show. Silk in “our” world is a tame, bumbling, bureaucratic slave — exactly the type of guy who can work at a place for 30 years and never manage to get a promotion. The “other” Silk puts Simmons in more familiar territory. He is more reminiscent of the stern jazz instructor Terence Fletcher in “Whiplash,” exuding confidence and machismo as he enters “our” world to chase down an interdimensional killer.
When presented with the task of playing multiple characters, many actors fall into the habit of letting themselves creep into both roles rather than letting each character breathe on their own. Simmons avoids this completely and plays both Silks with a stunning level of nuance. Everything down to small facial movements and speaking tone is distinct for both characters, making it more impactful when both Silks discuss the commonalities they actually share. While Simmons steals the show, the characters of Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd, “Game of Thrones”) and Aldrich (Ulrich Thomsen, “Mortdecai”) are valuable, if understated, additions.
The world of “Counterpart” has a simultaneously retro and futuristic aesthetic, juxtaposing large, ancient computers with modern EDM nightclubs. The writing is tight, featuring few lines of wasted dialogue and moving the plot forward at a brisk pace. While it seems that there is an immense number of plot points to dig into and eventually tie together, these attributes inspire confidence that the show will be able to pull such a feat off successfully.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the show is the set of questions it already raises. The Howard Silks we meet are physically identical and even share the same wives, families, etc. Their incredibly obvious divergence in personality asks the question of whether they were each born with different personalities or whether it can be attributed to a series of different life choices. The well-crafted first episode is a solid encouragement to come back for the answers.