'Counterpart' Season 2: TV Review

Courtesy of Nicole Wilder/Starz Entertainment
A must-see show with a few challenges moving forward.
12/9/2018

After an exceptionally creative first season, Starz's under-the-radar drama starring J.K. Simmons will need to find a way to stay riveting.

[This review contains spoilers for season one (but not season two) of Counterpart.]

One of the best and most compelling dramas of 2018, Starz's Counterpart rocketed out of the gate behind an Emmy-worthy lead performance from J.K. Simmons — who egregiously wasn't even nominated — and a thrilling, deeply complicated and twisty storyline. 

That season will be an easy pick for a high perch on my Best of 2018 list (though the first four episodes of the new season air in December this year, the bulk will be in 2019, giving the under-the-radar series a chance to shine in back-to-back years).

The question will be if Counterpart can duplicate its highly effective first season, which nimbly danced around unpredictably throughout its debut while Simmons (and a very strong cast, including Olivia Williams) never failed to be riveting as character backstories were revealed.

Starz only sent three of the 10 episodes in season two for review, and while they ably continue the story and Simmons, Williams and company continue to do excellent work, those early episodes don't leap off the small screen like they did last year (which is understandable, having lost the element of uniqueness) and a proper evaluation will have to wait a little bit longer.

That said, all the episodes are strong. Where Counterpart finds itself in a bit of a quandary is that it's already a confusing series and new viewers will absolutely have to start at the beginning. There's no jumping in here — nothing will makes sense.

And ultimately that's how it should be. So much effort was built by series creator Justin Marks into that first-season premise and setup, and the writers room carried it all the way to the end, never once being predictable and managing a very tricky culmination of all those twists — which paid off for the time invested and deftly set up the second season. Everybody should experience that thrill ride before joining what will hopefully be a significantly higher-profile series in season two.

But again, it's no small feat for the second season to live up to what came before it. Marks' idea for Counterpart was clever and compelling, even if it raised a lot of questions about believability. What passed for intriguingly diffuse rules and motivations from the first season might be revealed to have some flaws as the new episodes roll out. That's because the first of many "Wait, what?" elements of Counterpart first came in the structural setup of the premise, where Howard Silk (Simmons) was working for a vaguely governmental or United Nations-like entity in Germany called the Office of Interchange, doing low-level security work — for 29 years — in a vaguely named department called "Interface." Howard never knew, in all those years, what the Office of Interchange was doing or what his job really entailed.

At that point, by all exterior clues, Marks has created a kind of weird espionage series. Howard speaks English and German (because he lives there), but the primary language at OI, as it's called, is clearly English. Howard's boss, Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd), has a British accent. There's not a clear sense of what year it is, though it seems to be present day — until you see some of the technology. 

The slight disorientation is interesting. And then rather quickly Marks and the writers ratchet up the change. Someone from "the other side," clearly a spy, has valuable information to share — notably that an assassin, from his side, has slipped over the border and is targeting people on this side. Howard is brought into this because as the hood is pulled off of the spy from "the other side," the big reveal is that it's...Howard. Or his counterpart. This is the dual role that Simmons is magnificent in. Howard from the other side is a hard-edged, not-to-be-messed-with agent. The Howard we were first introduced to is, well, pretty milquetoast. 

At that point, Howard — and the audience — obviously must be brought up to speed, and that is where Marks inserts the twist that defined Counterpart: During the Cold War, an East German experiment gone wrong created a parallel universe. So first, voila, the espionage thriller is now at least a quarter sci-fi, but not in a tone-busting spaceships-and-Martians kind of way; more like a meticulous what-if involving quantum physics. And secondly, voila redux, everyone has an "other" in each world, which explains milquetoast Howard and bad-ass Howard, though figuring out how they diverged (and the same goes for all the other characters we meet) is an endlessly fascinating thought puzzle on nature vs. nurture or something a bit more troubling. The Berlin-based Office of Interchange, it turns out, contains the underground portal between the two, a series of cave-like steps and iron doors that divide the worlds. 

While those are the big reveals, Marks and the writers race through a ton of other surprising turns as well, barely with enough time to explain them — which, of course, creates a lot more problems in season two, when viewers have had more time to figure out the plot than they did in season one, when it was all just non-stop enjoyable confusion.

In fact, one of the ways I managed to track which Howard was on the screen (because not only did Simmons do a fantastic job differentiating them, in relatively short order the two Howards have to switch places and pretend to be the other in order to solve one of the early spy problems) was to think of them as "light Howard" and "dark Howard." The softer, kinder Howard was prone to wearing beige and light tones to match his mood, while the bad-ass Howard often wore black. Counterpart, however, had its own way to identify the two, simply referring to the original as Howard and his counterpart as Howard Prime (from the parallel world). This didn't help anything, because almost everyone discussing the show and eventually the show itself began to refer to milquetoast Howard as Alpha Howard and bad-ass Howard as Howard Prime, probably because "alpha" connotes original and — another twist — the Prime world, accidentally created by the East Germans, is actually more advanced in many ways, like architecture, and "prime" connotes the best.

Now everyone is Alpha or Prime, and as the counterparts cross over and back, this becomes increasingly more important (and harder) to track. 

While season one was excellently crafted in pace and thoroughly different from most other fare, it was understandable that conceptual decisions wouldn't be under the microscope they way they will now in season two.

There were early issues, to be sure. While the Prime side had better architecture (and booze and food, apparently), it was way behind on technology; and while the Alpha side has what looks like gratuitous iPhones, the Prime side has flip-phones and retro land-lines. Some of this is explained by an important plot point from season one: The Prime side was devastated by a population-reducing flu epidemic that it firmly believes was part of a bioterrorist attack from the Alpha side. Its nationalistic efforts were more necessarily put into medical advances to stay alive, while the Alpha side, which denied creating the flu pandemic, was able to brush up on better consumer goods (but, strangely, lacks the capacity to erect interesting buildings). And, to complicate things even more and, as noted, draw scrutiny in season two, both sides have the same vaguely named departments inside their government buildings (Interface, Housekeeping, Strategy and Management). An ongoing this-is-weird mystery on Counterpart is that Management, on both sides, are invisible rulers who speak to their minions through what appear to be archaic televisions and technological contraptions out of 1970s James Bond movies (though that might be giving the current technology in Counterpart too much credit). 

While some of those world-building choices will be up for debate (or hopefully explained more as the series goes forward), the actual structure of the season one plot, once it came into focus at the end and the sleeper cells, double-crossings, motives for assassinations and loyalties were revealed, was relatively easy to follow: A rogue group from the Strategy side in the Prime world, without apparent knowledge by Management from that side, set up an elaborate plan to exact revenge on the Alpha side for allegedly unleashing the flu virus. That plan was a school (called "the School" in that Counterpart way I find appealing) that was taking children on the Prime side and training them to be exactly like their counterparts on the Alpha side, then "replacing" them (which meant killing kids and other people on the Alpha side, thus creating a very elaborate sleeper-cell collection). 

So season two will have fewer of the confusing but thrilling plot revelations of season one and more of the (potentially) confusing and possibly more annoying dilemmas of what to do next. Building the two worlds and creating the espionage twists was what made Counterpart so addictive in that first season. It remains to be seen how season two, without the benefit of those shiny new twists, can take the story from where it currently exists and further it while not losing that early magic. It's not easy, but second seasons are notoriously harder. Still, based on the impressive execution of the original concepts, you shouldn't underestimate Marks (who is now serving as showrunner) and the writers and their ability to make it all work.

(Counterpart is produced by MRC. MRC is a division of Valence Media, which also owns The Hollywood Reporter.)

Cast: J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd, Nazanin Boniadi, Sar Serraiocco, Nicholas Pinnock, Guy Burnet, Richard Schiff, Christiane Paul, James Cromwell
Created and written by: Justin Marks
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m., ET/PT (Starz)