Howard Silk—played with empathy and aplomb by J.K. Simmons—is a meek desk jockey at a frustratingly bizarre company. At one point, he blurts out “I don’t know what we do here!” When he finds out what happens in his office building and why he’s important to it all, Counterpart gets off to a very good start.
If it wasn’t for the production notes on Counterpart, I wouldn’t even know that Howard Silk works for a division of the UN. Everything about the new Starz series seethes with secrecy and portent. Part of Silk’s job has him getting buzzed through the halls of a huge bureaucratic appartus—along with men who are all in identical suits—sitting down in a tiny interview room, and reading passphrases back and forth with a younger man. We’re not told what any of it means but it’s clear it means Something.
That’s how things go for most of Counterpart’s pilot. We see Howard playing the Chinese board game Go with a friend and are left to wonder what significance it has, other than the symbolism of pitting black and white pieces against each other. The initial two-thirds of the pilot show us where Howard is in his life: He banters with younger colleagues, lobbies for a long overdue promotion to another division, visits his comatose wife in the hospital every night, and argues about her fate with an asshole brother-in-law. He’s a decent if mildly beaten-down kind of man who, we’re given to understand, has probably seen the best parts of his life pass him by.
Counterpart opens with a man falling through a window onto the street. Operatives from an unnamed faction make mention of the Other Side but, seeing as how they’re talking German, you’re led to believe that this is set sometime/somewhere around the Cold War-era Berlin Wall. Repercussions from that crime scene eventually make their way into Howard’s life after the supercilious boss calls Harold in, saying, “Someone walked in from the other side.” Howard is confused and the boss elaborates that, “This one is different, valuable, and only willing to speak with you.” A hooded figure walks into the room and, once his mask is taken off, Howard Silk meets Howard Silk. Doppel-Howard says a killer from Other Side has come through to this world, and he’s agreed to help Main Howard’s colleagues track her. As the show goes on, it’s explained that a Cold War experiment opened up a tunnel to an alternate Earth and the opening of the “door” created a branching point. The building where Howard works is a waystation where intelligence gathering gets traded across the divide.
The acting shines in Counterpart and, in particular, Simmons’ performances as the two Howards are great. He uses varying body language, cadence, and eyeline focus to really make it seem like these are totally different personas, and the best scenes are the ones where he has to play against himself. The show’s central theme appear to be, essentially, “How Different Could Another You Be?” One Howard Silk is a sentimental salaryman, frustrated at being stuck in the same place in his nondescript corporate job. The other is a stealthy operator, scanning rooms, faces, and details to catalogue their usefulness to him. Doppel-Howard is brasher than his meeker counterpart and there’s both sympathy and tension flowing between them. When they talk about their divergence, Counterpart strikes gold:
Doppel-Howard: “See, this is what’s so fucked up. Genetics, childhood… Doesn’t matter; we’re helpless to our experience. The difference between you and me could be a single moment; one little thing gone wrong.”
Main Howard: “Or right.”
The series will need to deliver a storyline and plot that keeps people coming back week after week but, as far as I’m concerned Counterpart’s already shown enough philosophical ambition to get me hooked.