I’m a sucker for alternate universes. Those who, like me, were raised on a steady diet of His Dark Materials and Fringe will find much to enjoy in Counterpart, the new Starz drama starring J.K. Simmons as two same-but-different men on either side of an interdimensional divide. All the component parts of a good split-reality tale are there—the gradual, patient worldbuilding via context clues; the wide-eyed wonder of discovery, mirrored by an audience proxy; the philosophy-lite hypothetical taking nature versus nurture to its logical extreme—grafted seamlessly onto the plot and tropes of a spy thriller. Counterpart is the kind of slickly entertaining fare that’s often lost in the chasm between popcorn and prestige aspiration; if the term weren’t so frequently misused as an insult, it’d be tempting to deem the show “middlebrow.” Counterpart, which premiered this past Sunday, is worth keeping an eye on, particularly for fans of the genres that creator Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) freely picks and chooses from in his fusion of science fiction and spycraft.
Simmons plays Howard Silk, who spends his days—or at least one version of him does—as a functionary cog in an opaque, multifaceted bureaucracy that would do Kafka proud. Departments have names that are either blatantly euphemistic or merely overbroad, like “Housekeeping” and “Interface.” Supervisors give promotions and enforce strict codes of conduct without apparent rhyme or reason. Howard himself openly admits he doesn’t know what the organization he’s dutifully served for three decades actually does. All he knows is that it’s an arm of the United Nations, it’s allowed him to live comfortably with his wife, Emily (Olivia Williams), for decades, and it’s based in Berlin.
Then Howard’s clockwork routine falls apart. First, Emily is hit by an inattentive driver, putting her in a medical coma. Six weeks later, the precise nature of Howard’s job is revealed to him in the most abrupt and traumatic way possible: from the mouth of his mirror image, who summarily informs him Emily is in danger of being assassinated. Also, 30 years ago a group of scientists accidentally forked the space-time continuum into two parallel worlds on increasingly separate paths, meaning everyone older than 30 has an “other” who shares their DNA and appearance but not necessarily their history or personality. Howard’s workplace—both Howards’ workplace—exists to rigorously safeguard the portal between the two worlds and manage relations between either side, whether by diplomacy or by espionage.
This kicks off a chain of events that counters the inevitable head-spinning questions about free will and chance with far more immediate ones about the Howards’ combined mission. Who is trying to kill Emily, and why? How are the assassins getting from this other world to ours? Who is helping them?
The core premise of Counterpart may be fantastical, but the execution takes on the grim realist style of a Le Carré adaptation. Both setting and setup directly invoke the Cold War so beloved by spy fiction: not only is Counterpart the Berlin-based story of two rigidly divided parties in prolonged yet intangible conflict; the interdimensional gateway was also created by actual Cold War researchers, making Counterpart’s continuation of that strain of story more than just figurative. The supporting cast makes up a smorgasbord of familiar archetypes: Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), the rogue contract killer known only by her code name; Claude (Guy Burnet) and Roland (Richard Schiff), the dignitaries leading tense negotiations over exquisitely plated lunches; the sleeper agent living a double life, whose identity I won’t spoil. The interplay between these chess pieces gives Counterpart its forward momentum, with allegiances forged, broken, and uncovered at a steady clip.
Still, it’s Counterpart’s (literal) otherworldly side that gives it weight. We’re told early on that the two universes have been growing exponentially further apart since their split, but it’s not clear what the major distinctions between them are. Slowly, a steady drip of oblique references start to clue us in: a visitor to our world mentions the seafood back home is better, because their side has cleaner oceans; a few paranoiac ads on the other side hint at a fear of illness and infection. Apart from the initial reveal, the largest single dose of exposition the audience receives is a negotiation that demonstrates exactly what’s haggled over in relations between the two worlds—information, like where the other side found oil. Turns out Counterpart’s characters know roughly the same amount about each other’s existences as we do, which is barely anything. Their curiosity is the viewer’s, creating an addictive atmosphere of suspense that doesn’t feel like a manipulative withholding of information.
The relative paucity of hard facts about the ground rules in Counterpart’s universes also makes room for its true centerpiece. Counterpart is much less of a J.K. Simmons vehicle than it could have been, and the writing takes care to develop potentially two-dimensional characters as full-fledged protagonists with both agency and inner lives, particularly Emily and Baldwin. Still, the Academy Award winner—here reunited with executive producer Jordan Horowitz, of La La Land and Oscar mix-up fame—is the undisputed star of the show, and gives a performance commensurate with the doubled demands placed on him to carry the series.
Thirty years apart has created two very different Howard Silks. One is mild-mannered, loyal to a fault, and unambitious; the other is a hardened, jaded operator who’s climbed the ranks of their organization. Though Other Howard cautions his twin not to give too much thought to how those differences arose (“You’ll go crazy … seriously, people have”), there are hints dropped along the way that prove just as intriguing as those about the broader state of the world. In the meantime, Simmons ensures his characters are distinct in the audience’s eyes long before that distinction is codified by backstory. Without exaggerating the Howards’ personae with over-the-top tics, Simmons gives our world’s Howard a droopy, sad-eyed bluster and the other a stiff, impatient bite. The gap between the two Howards is subtle, yet obvious enough that it’s never difficult to tell them apart, even when they’re sharing the same frame or, for one mission, swapping identities. “Which one are you?” a collaborator asks at one point. “Fuck you,” Other Howard responds. It’s not the response I would have chosen, but the collaborator shouldn’t have had to ask.
Impressive as Simmons’s showing is, the performance never feels like a stunt for its own sake. For the most part, the dual role serves Counterpart’s larger goal of telling a well-paced story with just the right amount of brain-bending what-ifs. Counterpart isn’t aiming for a grandiose statement about the nature of choice and the siren song of a life that’s not inherently better or worse than your own, but simply different. Instead, the show uses those questions as accents to a central story powered by more basic problems, like who’s shooting at who and how to stop them. On the spectrum of sci-fi-adjacent dramas, Counterpart is far closer to Lost than The Leftovers—which is precisely where it should be.