'Counterpart': How 'Alias' Influenced the Starz J.K. Simmons Spy-Fi Drama

Counterpart and Alias Still - Split - Photofest - H 2018
Left, courtesy of Starz; Right, Photofest

As the Starz spy-fi mashup Counterpart nears the end of its first season, critics and viewers notice parallels with the J.J. Abrams-helmed Fringe. Both series have alternate universes, a liberal use of doppelgangers and an increasingly tense and at times deadly turf war between the two worlds.

Largely ignored in the discussion is another Abrams spy show: Alias, which predated Fringe and had a groundbreaking concept. Alias was the first American TV show to mix spycraft with supernatural/sci-fi elements. The overarching storyline involving Milo Rambaldi, a mythical character loosely based on a mixture of inventor Leonardo da Vinci and seer Nostradamus, gave a much-needed creative jolt to the usual spy show tropes. Super spy/double agent Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) was revealed to be “The Chosen One,” the person who would ultimately bring about Rambaldi’s endgame, which was (wait for it) the end of the world.

One of the shared elements in both shows is the use of doppelgangers. The core of Counterpart lies in the interactions of the various “others,” with star J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of the two Howard Silks at the center. As the season has progressed, the relationship between the meek Howard Alpha (our world) and the hard-boiled Howard Prime (the alternate world) has deteriorated to the point of endangering the stability of both worlds. In the case of the Howards, Counterpart mines the themes of how nature vs. nurture can give rise to such diametrically opposite men.

Alias did the doppelganger angle 15 years ago, coming to a head with the shocking season two revelation that Syd’s life-long best friend Francie Calfo (Merrin Dungey) was replaced by a genetically altered double. The season two finale gave us the thrilling Syd/Francie showdown, brought about by the most famous reference to coffee ice cream in the history of television.

The indoctrination of children to be used as sleeper agents is also a common thread, but again Alias did it first, with the ‘Project Christmas” storyline involving Sydney’s CIA agent father Jack (Victor Garber) training his own daughter without her consent.

Where the shows differ is in the stark contrast of how their worlds are portrayed. Alias was a flashy, sexy, adrenaline-fueled adventure with byzantine (at times baffling) plot twists. Counterpart is a grim, almost Orwellian take on espionage, with a decidedly low-tech look and feel.

Both shows are compelling in their own way, but without Alias creatively broadening the idea of what a spy show could be, Counterpart would likely be a different, more traditional show.

Counterpart airs Sundays on Starz.