Counterpart has all the mystery of Lost, all the spy shenanigans of The Night Manager, and all the diversity of Roseanne.
At first glance, Counterpart seems to be spy thriller. The show is filmed in Berlin with a bleak aesthetic and a bleaker view of mankind. By the end of the first episode, however, you realize that it’s science fiction.
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Counterpart follows Howard Silk, a meek and thoughtful man who’s madly in love with his wife. She’s in a coma, but he visits the hospital every evening with a fresh bouquet of flowers. Howard has a menial job with a mysterious agency; even he doesn’t know the company’s purpose.
His world is blown to bits when he meets another man who looks exactly like him and is also named Howard Silk. He is finally told the purpose of the company he works for: To hide a gateway to a parallel dimension, and to keep anyone crossing over.
It’s a big no-no to go back and forth between the worlds, which are nearly identical. Governments in each world have agencies to protect themselves. There are designated people who are allowed to cross back and forth, or even live in the opposite world as an ambassador. But they are closely guarded.
The strictest rule both governments enforce is that no one can meet their “other,” their doppelganger. When Howard is confronted with his counterpart — whose personality is completely different — his agency does everything it can to contain the situation.
A Tale of Two Worlds
As you can imagine, there are a lot of questions that come up after that first episode. Why are there two parallel dimensions? When did it happen? Does everyone have a doppelganger? Why does it matter if they meet? And, most importantly, why is the other Howard on this side and insisting on working the first Howard?
Answers to those questions come slowly. We get clues like breadcrumbs that the writers scatter here and there very sparsely. It would be maddening, and too frustrating, to continue watching Counterpart, if it weren’t so darn intriguing. There’s obviously something big and earth-shattering going on, but we’re only catching glimpses.
The first Howard endears himself to the audience very quickly, so you find yourself rooting for him, even though you don’t know what exactly you’re rooting for. However, there aren’t many estimable characters on Counterpart. You quickly discover that characters who seem innocuous are, in fact, very dangerous.
Like any good spy story, Counterpart has a lot of plot twists. The writers unspool the story deftly, with mystery and intensity. Just when you think you know where the story is headed, something new comes to light and changes everything.
The number one reason to watch Counterpart is the astounding performance by J.K. Simmons. He plays both Howards, obviously, but he plays them so differently it’s hard to believe he’s one man and not twins. His prodigious acting talent is fully on display in Counterpart. While the special effects make his interactions with himself seamless, it’s his amazing performance as two completely different people that brings off the whole premise. His mannerisms, his gait, his facial expressions and even the timbre of his voice changes for each Howard. It will be a crime if he is not nominated for his performance(s).
It’s Raining (White) Men
Although Counterpart is well-written, with a beautiful production design and a cast of very talented actors, it’s appeal is limited. Why? Because it’s aimed at one demographic: White men, especially white men who love spy thrillers.
I realized this one day in the shower (that’s where I do my best thinking). I was thinking about Counterpart and how amazing J.K. Simmons is, but then I started mentally flicking through the rest of the cast. A pattern emerged. When I poked and prodded at my assumption, it held up.
Counterpart portrays two worlds, two entire worlds with enormous populations. Yet, there’s only one black man in the whole cast. Out of all those billions of people, one dude is black?
As for female roles, there are a few, but none of them are worth a Euro. The women are either naked or evil, or both. The meatiest female role is an assassin… who bares her breasts in nearly every episode she’s in. And of course, she’s a lesbian. Why have only two bare breasts when you can have four?
As for the bare breasts, what the hell? There’s plenty of boob, and only a single shot of male anything, so far. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not jonesing to see J.K. Simmons’s naked butt; I’m just looking for some equality. The inequality of male and female nudity gives Counterpart a 1970s feel.
The lack of diversity is my own pet peeve. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying Counterpart and trying to figure out what’s going on. If you can endure the slow build-up, and having more questions than answers, you will be enthralled by Counterpart.