Parallel universes. Multiple identities. Bizarre paradoxes that might result from a person meeting his ‘twin’ from a parallel world. These are concepts and theories from the realms of science and science-fiction, almost as old as the genre itself, all explored and recycled and nearly done to death by the film and television industry. Yet somehow, Counterpart takes on the same familiar genre tropes and manages to put a fresh, ambitious spin to it all. Created by Justin Marks for the premium-cable network STARZ, this is a cleverly written sci-fi thriller with a very promising setup. Counterpart stars the inimitable Academy Award-winning actor J.K. Simmons in a delectable double-role as Howard Silk, a man whose life begins to change dramatically when he comes in contact with his twin from ‘the other side’. The pilot episode, titled “The Crossing”, introduces us to this familiar-yet-strange world and fleshes out the characters before diving headlong into a racy, action-filled narrative.
Counterpart is a promising tale of mystery, murder and identity crisis set against a thematically rich sci-fi backdrop, with an intricate espionage thriller vibe holding it all together.
Howard is an unassuming nice guy who works at a German bureaucratic UN company in Berlin. He plays a game of Go every morning at the park which he seems to lose every time, hinting at the lack of any killer instinct within him. At work he diligently does his job, without questioning its peculiar nature, never giving anyone any cause to complain in all the 30 years he has been there. He visits his sick wife every day at the hospital, comatose due to a tragic accident, and reads to her. Life goes clockwork for the laidback Howard, until one day when he is suddenly denied entry to his workplace without explanation.
In a bizarre development of events, Howard comes face to face with his twin from the other side ― another Howard Silk living in a parallel world that branched off some 30 years ago due to an experiment gone wrong. Howard’s counterpart is a cold, ruthless operative agent caught up in some dangerous clandestine mission that is about to throw his entire life and existence into chaos as he had never imagined.
Apart from Simmons’ masterful display, Harry Lloyd (who also played Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones) features in a refreshing role as Peter Quayle, a senior executive officer at Howard’s office. Howard’s honest and reserved demeanour is fluidly intercut with Peter’s boyish charm and dialogue-delivery that’s simultaneously witty and suave. The pilot episode does have some pacing problems but it’s nothing that doesn’t seem fixable once the action ramps up.
The slow-burner script feels smart enough to sidestep clichés despite revolving around traditional sci-fi territory. Although the exact reasons why Howard is forced to meet his counterpart feels a little contrived. The two Howards are evidently intended to be distinctly black and white, something apparent immediately from the way they dress ― the nice-guy Howard almost always in lighter shades of white and his counterpart in dark colours ― and yet the two characters still manage to feel more than one-dimensional within the pilot itself.
The meek Howard suffers from pent-up regret over leading an average boring life while his darker alter-ego displays signs of compassion and remorse as well. The writers use the interesting setting of a man meeting his alternate self to explore deeper truths about life. Despite the fact that the two Howards share the same childhood and same genetic makeup, their philosophy and outlook regarding humans and morality have grown to be starkly different from each other. Implying that it is ultimately our life experiences and our reactions to those experiences that determine our personalities and place in life. Something that our protagonist(s) are seemingly about to learn more and more in the episodes to come.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.