In the US: Sundays, Starz
On the face of it, Counterpart is quite a simple beast – an attempt to do a Berlin-set Cold War spy thriller, in which the two opposite sides plan clandestine operations against one another, the other side doing espionage things to counteract those plans. It’s packed with a great cast of mainly British actors, is actually filmed in Germany, and has a lovely sense of pace and tradecraft.
The fillip is that rather than a period piece, Counterpart is set in the modern day. How does that work, given the Cold War is over? Well, the two opposite sides are in parallel universes so it’s as much Earth vs Earth as Spy vs Spy.
The hero of the piece is JK Simmons, a lowly, affable desk jockey who does nothing all day but meaningless paperwork and by night visits his comatose wife (Olivia Williams) in hospital. Except he’s also bad guy (of sorts) since his ‘counterpart’ from the opposite universe is a top spy looking to stop the Cold War between the universes from heating up and who doesn’t mind using Simmons to do it.
Remember why you’re doing this
Episode 1 melds that spy action beautifully with its more existential concerns – why are the two Simmons different? Who else is different? What might happen to your own sense of identity if you knew that you could have been something else? Would you be attracted to that alternative destiny or repelled by it?
Unfortunately, episode 2 then forgets most of that and instead follows a secondary character it tries its best to interest us in but fails miserably. It’s just lots of running around in the dark, redeemed by Simmons’ few appearances.
Thankfully, episode 3 remembers the show’s raison d’être and expands on it. We get to know more about Williams – in both universes – learn a little more about the differences between the two worlds and in what ways they’ve diverged (and why), and get a lot more Simmons. Harry Lloyd makes a welcome return and he’s brought his father-in-law (Richard Schiff) with him, to show us how diplomacy between the two universes works. There are also some lovely poignant moments between alter-Simmons and alter-Williams as we learn why their relationships have diverged and even why alter-Simmons is the way he is. There’s also the obligatory cross, double-cross, bluff and counter-bluff.
Counterpart is a really enjoyable mash-up of the Cold War spy thriller and the metaphysical – when it remembers to be. When it takes its eye off the ball, as it did in episode two, it can also be just a load of murky conversations in murky rooms, without anything interesting to it whatsoever.
Provided it maintains focus, Counterpart will be a welcome addition to the TMINE viewing schedule
Barrometer rating: 2