Howard Silk ( J K Simmons) is a lowly information-shuffler in an anonymous UN governmental building in an oppressive European regime in a world that’s like our own but greyer, hollower and ruled by the kind of remits that would make George Orwell get a paper-cut. Each day he dons a similar suit, walks the same corridors, sits in the same small cubicle and indulges in only limited and audited formal conversations. On an evening he visits his comatose wife (Emily (Olivia Williams) in the hospital and then goes home to a cold apartment. Yes, he’d quite like a promotion, but his immediate boss (Harry Lloyd) sees no reason to move him from his twenty-year-plus post. Howard’s life, it seems, is mapped out and mundane forever…
Then one day Howard is summoned to an upper floor by his very nervous boss. There’s another man in the room who seems impossibly familiar and the truth of the hows and whys of his presence are going to impact not just Howard’s day to day life but his understanding of the entire universe.
If Howard survives the next twenty-four hours, full of doppelgangers, deceit, danger and deadly assassins, he might just deserve that promotion…
Depending on how it follows up and paces itself over the course of its series, there’s already a great chance that Counterpart will end up being of the key genre entries of the year. It’s the sort of project that is exactly the sum of its great parts – a clever idea, interestingly executed, compelling enough to know which questions it needs to answer and which to leave to the imagination, scripted with sharp wit and pacing and populated by actors who know how to deliver without merely showboating.
Created by Justin Marks, with the first two episodes helmed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, there’s a distinctly European tone to the look and pacing – despite the fact that a majority of the interior production actually lensed in LA. It feels like the kind of cold war thriller that the BBC would produce if someone upped their budget and the international cast only adds to that benchmark of quality.
Its beating heart is the always excellent J K Simmons, an actor whose career encompasses everything from an Oscar-winning supporting role in Whiplash, appearances in both the Marvel and DC universes (as J Jonah Jameson and Commissioner Gordon respectively), a myriad of other impressive big-screen character roles through to his familiar presence on Farmers Insurance commercials across the US. That being said, Counterpart gives him even greater room than usual to flex his muscles in two key roles. Through a combination of dialogue, gait, eye movement and the most subtle changes of mannerisms, Simmons gives us two versions of the same man that instantly make us aware that they are the same person and yet two entirely diverging collections of experience. It may take cinematic sleight of hand to put both Harolds in the same place, but its Simmons who sells every scene that requires it.
Though the first episode sees Olivia Williams’ role largely confined to a bed and feeding tube, her role and importance to proceedings become more active during later episodes. There are several other significant, familiar faces in the ensemble. Harry Lloyd, as insipid boss Peter Quayle, has appeared in the likes of Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, The Theory of Everything and Manhattan. Banshee fans will recognise Ulrich Thomsen as Aldridge, the Director of Counterintelligence in a role that Thomsen took when Michael Nyqvist had to pull out because of a scheduling conflict. Jamie Bamber is well known for his role in Battlestar Galactica and the UK’s Law & Order. Stephen Rea and Richard Schiff also appear in later episodes.
This is old-school meets new-school, echoing the days of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with a distinctly modern twist. One wonders if a modern audience has been programmed to want a faster-pace than the pilot initially delivers, but thankfully, it ignores such doubts and accepts its task of world(s)-building. Those sticking with it will have both wordplay and gunplay before the first end-credits roll. A perfectly-pitched first episode will likely have that audience yearning for more, though there’s no binge-option for the Starz-based production. The show has already got a two-season commitment (each with ten episodes), so expect the mysteries and bigger picture to unfold at a sedate but still enthralling pace.
An excellent, almost pitch-perfect addition to the tv schedule of the discerning spy and/or sf genre fan…
‘Counterpart‘ begins on the US’s Starz platform on 21st January. No UK date has been confirmed as yet.