The new Starz sci-fi drama ‘Counterpart’ officially debuts on January 21st, but the network offered an advance preview of the pilot episode last month. It should still be available via On-Demand if you missed it. From this one little taste, the show appears to be one of the more promising offerings for the new year.
Oscar winner J.K. Simmons stars as Howard Silk, a milquetoast, bureaucratic drone who works a monotonous job at an ill-defined agency that seems to be located in a dystopian version of Germany. Every day, Howard puts on a suit, checks in through the elaborate security at work, and sits in a locked cubicle with a glass window separating him from an identical cubicle at which another man sits. They each read off coded words and phrases from an approved list that neither is privy to the meaning of. They are allowed no extraneous communication. Once the expected words have been exchanged, they leave. Howard repeats this routine day after day after day. His job description is known only as “Interface,” and he has done it for decades, never questioning its purpose. However, late in life, he develops a smidge of ambition and applies for a promotion to “Strategy.” His much younger and smugger superior, a man named Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd), practically laughs in his face at the idea of Howard doing anything outside his prescribed box.
One day, after being denied his promotion, Howard is detained by his company’s security and brought to an interrogation room without explanation. Quayle arrives, looking very nervous, and instructs him, “Whatever you do, don’t panic.” These are not reassuring words. Into the room walks Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), a mysterious hardass spy from “the other place.” The meek Howard is dumbfounded. In appearance, the other man is his exact doppelganger, but his personality and temperament are vastly different. The other Howard has little patience for his clueless twin. He talks directly to Quayle, offering little concern for whether the first Howard can keep up with the conversation. From the tidbits Howard picks up, it seems that his surly alternate has arrived in pursuit of a killer.
After mean Howard leaves, Quayle finally makes Howard privy to some highly classified information. It seems that their office building sits at the nexus between two worlds in parallel universes. Up until 30 years ago, the worlds were identical in every respect, down to every man, woman and child. Only after the breach between them was discovered did the timelines in the two universes diverge. Knowledge of each world’s existence is tightly guarded. They trade information about each other through Interface personnel such as Howard, who are oblivious to the messages they share.
Howard has many questions but is given few answers. The doppelganger returns later on a 12-hour visa and wants to get right to work. He explains that a contract assassin named Baldwin has snuck over into this world, and one of the targets on his kill-list is Howard’s wife Emily (Olivia Williams), who currently lies comatose in a hospital bed following a car accident. Alt-Howard says that the Emily from his world already died from cancer years earlier. He believes that the assassin’s employers are trying to send him a message by killing her alternate. He intends to trade places and pose as the meek Howard in order to lay a trap for Baldwin at Emily’s hospital room. In order to do this, he needs Howard to guide him through the details of his nightly routine so as not to arouse suspicion.
Unfortunately, Alt-Howard misses a step regarding leaving flowers at the nurse’s station. Baldwin (who is actually a woman) picks up on this and aborts. This leads to a chase and a shootout in the hospital. Baldwin spots Howard locked in a car as she’s leaving, but Alt-Howard shoots at and grazes her. Baldwin escapes.
With his allowed time up, Alt-Howard has to return home to his world, but he promises to come back as soon as he can get a longer visa. Having been subjected to all these mind-bending events, original Howard develops some backbone and demands both a promotion and greater access at work. He knows that he’s needed now.
The episode ends with both Howards in their respective worlds drinking alone, until Alt-Howard is met at a bar by his wife Emily, who isn’t dead after all.
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
‘Counterpart’ plays with a number of familiar themes and plot devices that may not be entirely original. Not too long ago, ‘Fringe’ spent five seasons developing a similar mythology about alternate universes, and the dystopian Kafka-esque society has been done to death over the years as well. Nonetheless, it’s all well-executed here, with stylish and atmospheric direction from Morten Tyldum (‘The Imitation Game’, ‘Passengers’) and a pair of very impressive performances from J.K. Simmons, who’s totally convincing as both personalities.
I’m definitely interested to see where this goes.