The new Starz drama Counterpart, which debuts Sunday, features a crazy high-concept executed in a fashion that’s at once buttoned-down and wild in its own right. The best way I can describe it is if The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Fringe had a threesome with The Parent Trap.
JK Simmons stars as Howard Silk — two Howard Silks, actually, since the core idea involves a parallel reality that split off from our own a few decades ago. As one of them explains, “There was one reality, and then it duplicated,” leading to changes both global and personal. The Howard from the world we know is a polite and friendly office drone in the agency that manages the border between the two Earths, so low-level he doesn’t even understand what he or the agency does; the Howard from this slightly off-kilter, depopulated alternate Earth is a ruthless spy who can’t believe how soft and meek the man wearing his face has become.
“He looks exactly like me, but he is nothing like me,” complains our Howard after meeting his doppelganger.
Spy Howard has come to our earth to stop an assassin called Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco) and figure out why she was sent here from his reality. Bureaucrat Howard just wants to stay out of trouble and visit his comatose wife Emily (Olivia Williams) in the hospital as she recovers (or doesn’t) from a hit-and-run. But the spy has good reason to mistrust his handlers on both earths (played by, among others, Ulrich Thomsen, Harry Lloyd, and Stephen Rea), forcing him to lean on the nebbishy Howard more than either man would like.
Created by Justin Marks (The Jungle Book), Counterpart takes the chilly form and careful pacing of a Cold War thriller — another spy’s widow, unaware of the parallel realities, asks if her husband was working for America or the Russians — leaning on European locations (both Howards work in Berlin) and a soundtrack heavy on classical music. Even most of the technology is from the ‘80s or earlier, despite it not being a period piece, for reasons that make sense the more we learn about the other reality. But it’s less John Le Carré in sci-fi drag than a character study, digging deep into each Howard — particularly after, as is mandatory for tales of dead ringers, they have to switch places for a while — to figure out how the same start could produce two men with so little in common.
“Difference between you and me could be a single moment,” spy Howard suggests. “One little thing gone wrong.”
Though Simmons’ build has fluctuated over the years(*), and he occasionally wears wigs, he’s not exactly a physical chameleon. But he’s been able to use that open, hangdog face incredibly varied effect over the years, from cruel monsters in Oz and Whiplash (for which he won an Oscar) to the warmest of people in Juno and The Meddler, to all manner of tones in between. That versatility serves him perfectly here, since the story requires the Howards to look alike but seem clearly different, even when one is impersonating the other.
(*) When interviewing him at the end of his time on Oz, I asked for the most important thing he’d learned from his breakthrough role. He told me it was seeing how heavy he was while watching the first season and committing to getting in shape. As anyone who saw his biceps in Whiplash (or this Instagram post from a couple of years ago) can attest, he more than met his goal.