I don’t understand how “Counterpart” got canceled before I ever heard about it.
“Counterpart” was a science fiction spy-thriller TV drama made by Starz that had two brief, brilliant seasons and was canceled in February 2020, before lockdown had me hunting for good new shows.
My circle is all geeks. New science fictions shows, good or bad, foreign and domestic, enter into our line of sight and get shared and debated with a white-hot fervor. I’ve listened to praise and pannings of “The Orville” and every new Trek show, of course. I’ve been talked into “The Dark” and “The Expanse,” with varying degrees of success. I’ve been jerked around by ‘Westworld” and let down by “Motherland: Fort Salem” and gotten my hopes up for “Weird City.” Why did I never hear about “Counterpart?”
“Counterpart” is a parallel universe show, wherein two identical Berlins exist side by side, an Alpha world and a Prime world. There is a doorway that opens in the middle, underground. Contact between the two introduces some of my favorite themes: the road not taken, the ideal self, the ability to see the road not taken if your other self took it.
It’s also a spy show. Spies from one world often slip into the other. We see key pieces of scientific discovery being traded between the two worlds in high-stakes games of secrecy and diplomacy. There are, of course, assassins and intrigue. There’s also a bizarre Cold War aesthetic to the world-building, though it is set in the modern day; one side lacks cell phones and most cutting-edge tech, so offices on both sides use monochromatic CRT monitors and old-school radio broadcast equipment.
Conditions of parallel universes and spy shit set up complicated and compelling work for the actors in this show to do, and boy do they do it. Series lead J.K. Simmons turns in a two-faced tour-de-force as ho-hum Howard, low-level nobody wife guy on one side, and conniving liesmith action hero on the other. The actor makes subtle choices in his carriage and posture between Prime and Alpha; even when they share clothes and don’t speak, we know who is who.
His equal and opposite number, Olivia Williams, plays Howard’s wife Emily. To describe the difference between her two characters would be to give away the game (and I know most of you haven’t watched; this show came and went without a blip) so I won’t say too much. I will say that Williams is an incredibly focused actress, tuning with precision to razor-sharp aspects of the same personality in two different people, honing and blunting across the spectrum of reaction and emotion in ways that made it impossible to do anything else while watching her work. I didn’t scroll. I didn’t tweet. I just ran my finger along that blade, and bled and sucked when she wanted me to.
Many of the reports on why this show was canceled hint that the series was too masculine in cast and delivery. Take a quick tour through this blog or my Twitter; I’ll be the first to tell you when I think my media is misogynist. “Counterpart” was not too male. There were multiple meaty, dimensional parts for women over 40 on this show. The youngest female characters weren’t hypersexualized or presented for the male gaze and their identities weren’t constructed around men. There are queer woman characters and their queerness is incidental, unremarkable, not portrayed as a problem and somestimes a feature of happiest moments rather their most miserable ones.
Riveting metaplot, smart dialogue, rich, dimensional characters, thoughtful dilemmas, questions about the nature of humanity and the nature of the universe… this show had it all. The cast was very (but not entirely) white; it could have absolutely been more diverse. But I have almost no complaints.
If you’re looking for something new and good and tragically complete, you should watch “Counterpart.” There are a lot of things I wish were different about this timeline, but this TV show is the smallest and most petty of my wishes. I wish there were more of it. I wish I had known about it sooner. I wish that it had caught on and gotten better and been allowed to continue.
Maybe in some parallel world, “Counterpart” is still on the air.