'Counterpart': TV Review

Addictive, stylish, creative.
1/21/2018

With J.K. Simmons' outstanding performance, Starz finds a compelling, intriguing winner in the murky espionage series.

Counterpart, the compelling new Starz drama that's mostly an old-school espionage thriller with a little bit of sci-fi tossed in and, we shall see, maybe an existential exploration of identity, is a hodgepodge of interesting ideas that drag you forward into the confusing narrative, with one central and undeniable hook: J.K. Simmons.

It's no mystery that the omnipresent Simmons is a pretty incredible actor, from his Oscar-winning work in Whiplash to, yes, his heavy-rotation Farmers Insurance commercials, but the ease with which he pulls off a dual role in Counterpart is truly skillful. It keeps you captivated, even if you wonder how long, if ever, the series will operate in a state of purposeful obfuscation.

Simmons plays Howard Silk, a low-level drone in a highly secretive "United Nations spy agency" based in Berlin. How secretive? Howard has worked there for 29 years, carrying out a series of highly orchestrated but mundane tasks that are either meant to decode something important or look that way. Howard says, more than once, that he doesn't really know what the division of his company, known as the Office of Interchange, really does.

And then he finds out — and has his mind blown.

Turns out — and the explanation for this early on is, at best, murky — the East Germans accidentally stumbled on a parallel universe about 30 years ago. There are identical people on both sides, with shared histories (at least early histories) that then diverge as those identical people become vastly different, theoretically, as the parallel universes move apart. And this is where Simmons becomes exceptional, and essential to the series' success. His meek Howard Silk has a counterpart, hence the name of the show, on the other side: Howard Prime, who is essentially a spy and assassin, light-years more badass than the silken Howard (an early and amusing running joke is how disappointed Howard Prime is in Howard Silk, for working 29 years at a place and never advancing).

Simmons plays the dual roles beautifully. Simmons changes his posture, tone, facial expressions, his walk and even what appears to be his breathing to differentiate the milquetoast Howard from bad-ass Howard. Every element of each portrayal is convincing.

Credit series creator, writer and executive producer Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) for crafting a surprisingly intriguing genre mashup that explores identity as much as the spy game and, for that matter, parallel universes. Television seems to suit him, and Starz has populated the series with a strong cast that includes Olivia Williams, Ulrich Thomsen, Harry Lloyd, Stephen Rea, Richard Schiff, Kenneth Choi and some young international talent.

Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) directs the pilot and sets the template (dark, stylish, German) that gives Counterpart a strong cinematic feel.

Dense but absorbing, Counterpart is filled with both twists and slow reveals, urging you into commitment. Any time there's a hesitation, there's Simmons, whose outstanding work won't let you pull away, giving Starz and creator Marks a series that could stand out in the TV jungle.

Cast: J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Richard Schiff, Stephen Rea, Kenneth Choi, Ulrich Thomsen, Harry Lloyd, Nicholas Pinnock, Sara Serraiocco, Mido Hamada, Jamie Bamber, Nazanin Boniadi
Creator/writer: Justin Marks
Pilot director: Morten Tyldum

Airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Starz, beginning Jan. 21.