A few weeks ago, I learned about a show called Counterpart. The show had originally aired on Starz and was available now on Amazon Prime. All I needed to hear was that J.K. Simmons played two roles and I made plans to check it out immediately.
I watched seasons 1 and 2 over the past two weeks. This is a sci-fi series about two worlds. An accident decades ago created a duplicate world … or perhaps it simply opened a connection between two worlds that always existed. The show’s logic on that point doesn’t matter. The point is, up until then, everything had been the same in these worlds. People’s others made the same choices, married the same people.
But once the crossing could be accessed and people started passing through between the worlds, things changed. People changed. And a person on one side might not make the same choices as their other.
From the start, we J.K. Simmons comes face to face with his other, learning about the other world that’s out there for the first time after decades of doing (essentially) grunt work and never rising through the ranks in his office. This allows for some incredible acting as J.K. Simmons presents two versions of the same character. Two versions who’ve made different choices and ended up in very different places. One is docile and compliant, doting on his wife and ignoring unpleasant truths to keep the peace. The other is shrewd, cunning, ten steps ahead of everyone else, and has squandered relationships. The first Howard is soft, caring, compassionate, sensitive. The second Howard is hard and indifferent.
This is a sci-fi spy show, so little is exactly as it seems. Over time, each Howard steps into different roles as they try to uncover a plot that threatens one of the worlds. Without giving anything away, the plot is layered and complex, and there are twists right up until the very end of the second season.
Although it’s J.K. Simmons that was the initial draw, the cast is exceptional. Many actors play two versions of their characters, and do so brilliantly. And it isn’t just male characters playing spy games. The list of vital female characters includes Emily Silk/Burton. In one world, Emily is still married to Howard and in the other they’re divorced. Clare Quayle is a force to be reckoned with as she comes to terms with what’s expected of her and reconciles that with what she wants. Baldwin is a contract killer who also confronts her sins and her hopes for her future. Naya Temple is the one who sees through the schemes and lies in her quest for the truth. And Mira, well. Mira is determined. Cunning. And, like the shrewd Howard, ten steps ahead of everyone.
It’s important to point out just how deep the list of amazing female characters in this show is, because Starz canceled Counterpart after two seasons with this baffling statement:
“Counterpart was a great show, we had great partners in MRC and Justin is a great writer, but it was a very complicated show, a very male show. We had picked that show up and made a two season commitment before we’d honed in on this premium female strategy,” he said.
“When you look at bringing shows back, it really has to serve that core premium female audience and if it doesn’t we have to find something else,” Hirsch added. “If it doesn’t serve our core strategy, we’re just not going to do it.”
So I have a few words for Jeffrey Hirsch. When you said, “…it was a very complicated show, a very male show,” did you mean that women are simple? Stupid? Incapable of following a complex plot? That all we want are some bodice rippers with hunky men filling our screens?
I mean, honestly, that sounds like what you’re inferring. And if that’s the case, then I want to say fuck you. Fuck your sexist shitty opinions about female viewers and how you’ve reduced us to shows that aren’t complicated.
Fuck you and your fucking network.
Counterpart was everything I’d been wanting in a great sci-fi thriller. The twists and turns weren’t just for shock value; they were earned, inferred in the storyline over several episodes, and the show expertly raised the tension and the stakes with the revelations and developments that unfolded.
Counterpart is also an exceptional study for authors because it effectively wraps up primary plotlines with the final episode of season 2, but it also leaves enough threads to pull on for a potential season 3. With the short-sighted sexist BS cancelation, there isn’t much hope for a season 3, which is a tragedy, but the groundwork is there.
While Counterpart has plenty of action and twists, it doesn’t scrimp on the character development. The core characters are richly developed. Every time you think a choice is simple, you discover all the reasons it isn’t. Many stories make the mistake of simplifying characters. The reality is, most people are full of contradictions and don’t always act logically. And this show recognizes that and highlights that truth. A character will be set on a specific course, determined to take specific actions, and then have the rug come out from under them when they start to see the potential repercussions of those choices. The experiences of some characters help them find their way back to themselves while others are irreversibly altered.
I desperately wish I could look forward to season 3. These ridiculous cancelations for shows that get minimal promotion are part of the reason I moved away from network TV years ago; I was tired of investing in shows and a character only to see networks pull the plug when they didn’t have instant ratings success. It’s surprising to me that I can be so aware of foreign films and tv shows and not hear about this one until a FB friend mentions they discovered it. As soon as I heard about it I located it and put in on our watch list. There are a lot of people who love sci-fi and love thrillers and with a cast including J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams (Terriers and Dollhouse), Harry Lloyd (Game of Thrones and Marcella), Nazanin Boniadi (Homeland), Betty Gabriel (Get Out and Westworld), Richard Schiff (The West Wing), and James Cromwell, how can you really go wrong? The depth of talent in this show was just staggering.
This smart, creative show deserved much better than the two seasons it got, but I am still glad we got them, and that the writers stuck the landing perfectly. I can see myself revising this show in the future. Don’t miss out on this one. I highly recommend it.