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Tuesday
Dec262017

« In Which We Visit Our Wife In The Hospital »

Double Trouble

by ETHAN PETERSON

Counterpart
creator Justin Marks
Starz

Howard Silk (J. K. Simmons) is meant to be the sympathetic protagonist of Counterpart, a new series debuting January 21st on the premium network Starz. He works as a low level functionary in an NGO, he is nearing the end of an unremarkable career, and his wife (Olivia Williams) is in a coma after a non-fatal car accident. My sympathies for Howard were destroyed at the exact moment when he found out there was a parallel universe, and the only question he had for the Howard Silk in that universe (still J.K. Simmons) was “Do you also enjoy carbs?”

Counterpart proves that human curiosity has evaporated completely. Other things prove this in equal measure. The Pentagon recently released footage of an unidentified aircraft moving at an unprecedented speed and it barely made the news. On one hand, almost nothing could manage to be as impossible as the world we now inhabit, and the prospect of having to deal with the unlikeliness of another universe does seem daunting. On the other hand, as Counterpart alleges, we may very well be that other universe.

The other Howard Silk - let’s call him Howie - since he drinks more and is very informal at times - is an impatient man who is unfaithful to his wife Emily (also Olivia Williams). Counterpart tells a lot of the story of the differences between these two worlds from visual cues and props. These details inform us one version of reality is far advanced from another. In order to prevent the series from ever becoming dated, this is not a story about politics on a global level. Instead, we are focused on J.K. Simmons to an exclusive degree.

As a sadistic instructor in Whiplash, and other memorable roles, Simmons invests his characters with a trademark, overwhelming amount of a self-possession that makes him believable in a variety of specific professions. As Howie Silk, he is a higher-level functionary in the parallel-universe business, and it is amusing to watch him boss around his meeker Howard version. Simmons sometimes overacts his parts, but he seems to make a concerted effort in Counterpart to hold back from entirely taking over each scene in order to allow his supporting cast here - which includes Homeland's Nazanin Boniadi and the versatile Ulrich Thomsen (Banshee) as Howard's superior.

Simmons has always used his unnaturally blue eyes as a weapon to show the depth of his engagement in a particular scene. As Howie, those electric spheres take in everything around him, whereas Howard Silk may as well have regular brown peepers – in a scene where he asks for a promotion he proves that he is the sort of person reluctant to take what belongs to him. Marks dresses his pathetic hero like he is in reconstructed Eastern Europe in the middle of the last century, with old-fashioned hats, vests and overcoats. When he goes to visit his wife at the hospital, he always brings flowers.

These nods to Kafka are somewhat novel, but they do not really contain any kind of substance or background that interests the viewer in any way. As a result, Counterpart feels more like a sketched out concept (see Lost, where the writers had no idea why they were on the island). Here we sense that Counterpart’s creators do not really have a destination in mind for this parallel universe concept – it is mostly a device that allows J.K. Simmons to stretch his range as a featured performer rather than a genuine mystery in its own right.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.

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