tv review

Counterpart Is Still Stuck Between Worlds in Season Two

Photo: Steffan Hill/Starz

By the end of the first season of Counterpart, one of the buzziest things about the Starz series, J.K. Simmons’s performance as two different identical men from separate worlds, ended up being one of its least interesting elements. Counterpart is a spy thriller about a universe where the world was split into two increasingly diverging planes of existence in the mid-1980s, and now the two worlds are, inevitably, at war. Simmons’s role as the lead character, Howard Silk — in both our “Alpha” version of the world and as his double in the harsher, darker “Prime” world — felt like the most notable thing about Counterpart when it first premiered, especially at a time when double casting on TV is considered both trendy and “prestige.” It’s not that Simmons’s performance isn’t excellent, because it absolutely is; but by the end of season one, the best thing about Counterpart was how it expanded its world beyond the small-scale vision of Nice-Guy Howard and his Dastardly Other.

Season two of Counterpart makes good on season one’s slow development into something more than a showcase for Simmons’s dual performance. Throughout the first season, Olivia Williams as both the Howards’ wives (Emily Alpha and Emily Prime) morphed into the most fascinating character of the series, something season two happily continues to emphasize. A nearly stand-alone episode from season one built Nazanin Boniadi’s character Clare into someone more tragic and compelling than we’d previously realized, and events in season two promise to stretch her further. The second season of Counterpart also introduces Betty Gabriel as a new investigator in the Prime world’s Office of Interchange, and although she isn’t given much to do in the three episodes made available to critics for review, the few scenes she has are magic.

But season two is also a demonstration of Counterpart’s continued limitations: What gradually, promisingly expanded into a more detailed image of the two separate worlds over the course of the first season is still essentially stalled in the same one-note tonal and thematic modes.

In the least charitable reading of Counterpart, actors play two different versions of themselves mostly as an excuse to chase each other, guns drawn, through identically frigid, bleak, brutalist concrete buildings. They pause regularly to examine manila envelopes containing inscrutable bits of information. Their brows furrow as they take in the significance of this new piece of evidence, and then, swiftly, they pivot on their heels and shoot someone in the head. Who? It’s not that important because in short order someone else will be hunting them, or they’ll be hunting someone else, through the stairwells of similarly brutalist edifices. Their beautiful winter coats will flap in the cold Berlin breeze as they pull guns from their pockets. They will sit on park benches and whisper secrets. They will gaze at one another with mixed wonder and alarm: “It’s like I know you, but I don’t,” they’ll say. And then, quickly, they will receive orders to hunt someone else, and off they’ll stalk.

That is, as I said, the least charitable view, and it’s not really meant as a dig. There’s plenty of room for a well-wrought, chilly spy thriller in the TV landscape, and Counterpart’s first season had at least three solid moments of plot-twist payoff where it proved itself worthy of the genre. It’s too soon to say whether season two can deliver similar “ooooh, but it’s actually THAT GUY!” revelations, but I have faith they’ll pull it off. However, Counterpart’s first season also had these inklings of a slightly different show — one where the existence of two separate, same-but-different worlds led to something more than the skeleton image of two identical faces staring at each other from opposite sides of a loaded gun — that never fully materialized.

Occasionally, the two worlds feel more meaningfully defined. Midway through season one, for instance, we learned more about the genesis of their divergence: In the Prime world, a 1996 flu epidemic wiped out a huge portion of the global population, making everyone on that side of the crossing germaphobic, fatalistic, and distrustful of the Alpha world, which some believe purposely seeded the Prime world with the flu virus. There’s a brief image of a bulletin board showing representative images of the divergences. The Alpha world had 9/11, and the Prime world did not. In one world, Prince is still alive. One world has banned the consumption of pork. There are all these little details that seem so telling and memorable and granular, and which I desperately wish Counterpart were more interested in incorporating into its primary storytelling.

Instead, they remain stubbornly lodged in the gray-and-brown-hued background, curiously detailed signs that never point toward any obvious signifiers. Much of this detail relegated to the realm of set and prop design; there are some truly lovely objects in Counterpart, like a coldly frightening, many-lensed machine that the mysterious “Management” uses to communicate its inscrutable will to underlings. In season two, there’s a shot of a simple recording device that a jailer uses to play an old audio recording for Alpha Howard, and it’s a beautifully utilitarian, smoothly operating device, immediately recognizable as something that plays audio yet simultaneously unfamiliar to us. That recording device does as much to communicate “this world is like ours, and yet not” as anything else in the show. If only more images in Counterpart did so much semantic work.

I’d likely be more willing to overlook these qualms if I were able to watch Counterpart all on its own, in a vacuum. It is, after all, undeniably watchable, and although episodes do reliably clock in at the requisite prestige-TV length of almost 60 minutes, there are enough sequences with decent momentum to keep the length from feeling oppressive. But there’s no way for me to forget that I’m watching Counterpart filtered through two other series: Park Chan-wook’s recent adaptation of The Little Drummer Girl, a show that makes me wish all spy thrillers used glorious, deeply saturated colors; and the long-canceled Fringe, a series that was part procedural, part bonkers sci-fi thriller romp. Fringe was also a two-worlds-one-story premise full of double roles, love plots, and apocalypse scenarios, and even if it was regularly uneven, it was also often silly and sweet and heart-thrummingly tense. As such, I watched much of Counterpart feeling an emotion I’m sure all of Counterpart’s characters would immediately recognize: a deep, inexplicable longing for something that’s just like this show, but also just a bit different, something more colorful and looser, a show about two different visions of a self where both of those selves were human beings with more going on than a basic survival-level sex/death impulse. I wish I could watch a Prime-world version of Counterpart.

But we do not have two worlds, so instead I will keep watching the version of Counterpart we do have, and enjoy it for the good things it offers, like Simmons’s performance, the moments of plot surprise, and the many, many beautiful winter coats.

Counterpart Is Still Stuck Between Worlds in Season Two