Counterpart

Tagged: TV

US tv series (2017-2019). Gilbert Productions / Anonymous Content / Gate 34 / MRC / Starz Originals, distributed by Starz! Created by Justin Marks. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, Charlotte Brändström, Hanelle M Culpepper, Lukas Ettlin, Jennifer Getzinger, Justin Marks, Charles Martin, Alik Sakharov, Morten Tyldum and Stephen Williams. Written by Marks; other writers are Amy Berg, Justin Britt-Gibson, Maegan Houang, Erin Levy, Maria Melnik, Tom Pabst, Zak Schwartz and Gianna Sobol. Cast includes Nazanin Boniadi, James Cromwell, Betty Gabriel, Harry Lloyd, Nicholas Pinnock, Stephen Rea, Richard Schiff, Sara Serraiocco, J K Simmons and Olivia Williams. Twenty 56- to 60-minute episodes. Colour.

Parallel Worlds spy thriller, partially filmed in Germany, notable for casting the Oscar-winning US actor J K Simmons in dual roles.

Simmons plays Howard Silk, a meek bureaucrat with the "Office of Interchange", a secretive United Nations agency in Berlin. For thirty years, and without knowing why, Silk has spent his days sitting at a partitioned booth reciting code-words to a stranger on the other side of the glass. This changes when he is brought into a meeting with another, identical, Howard Silk. This second Silk, an aggressive and high-ranking secret agent, hails from the parallel universe accessed through a portal in the Office of Interchange's basement. Silk 2 has uncovered an internal conspiracy of fanatics in his own universe, whose plan bridges and threatens both worlds. Trusting nobody on his side, he will work only with his Doppelganger, or "counterpart". Thus begins a labyrinthine Cold War allegory, playing out across two Berlins united by their preference for minimalist lighting.

The world-building of Counterpart is doled out slowly across two seasons, bolstered by uncanny shots of an alternate Berlin skyline. The universe was split in 1987, after an East German experiment went awry, and the Office of Interchange was created on both sides to hide this from the general populace. The resulting worlds or Dimensions, initially identical, then diverged in 1996 when a swine flu pandemic killed 7% of the population in Dimension 2, while leaving ours untouched. Agents within Dimension 2, believing this to have been a biological attack on their world by our own, launch a revenge plot which involves assassinating key officials in Dimension 1 and replacing them with their Dimension 2 counterparts.

With its doubled agents and partitioned Berlins, Counterpart literalizes familiar tropes of the spy genre. Its plot and aesthetic draw clear inspiration from the thrillers of John le Carré and Graham Greene, while its dual-world procedural unfolds similarly to China Miéville's The City and the City (2009). But whereas these predecessors used their human stories to highlight wider social and political concerns, the twisty plot of Counterpart exists in a vacuum. There is no ideology at play, just two identical cabals locked in pointless conflict, like the "Spy vs Spy" comics in Mad magazine from the 1960s. We are, suggests Counterpart, our own worst enemies.

Counterpart's strengths lie less with the machinations of subterfuge than in its analysis of Identity. Its Doppelganger characters share histories and genetics, but thirty years of diverging fortunes have given them very different natures. Simmons gives excellent performances, ably supported by Olivia Williams as his dual wives, and what lingers after the plot-twists is the bittersweet regret of people glimpsing other lives they could have lived.

Counterpart was always a niche product, and it was cancelled after two seasons. It had shown little sign of growing beyond the constraints of its excellent animated title sequence – where lonely figures chase each other through a brutalist grid of marble and mirrors. The show developed a posthumous frisson in the year after its cancellation, as the COVID-19 pandemic made its alternate reality of hand sanitizer, surgical masks and accusatory diplomacy seem unpleasantly prescient. [JN]

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