J.K. Simmons is an actor with extraordinary range. He's played a mean band teacher in Whiplash, Spider-Man's boss in the Sam Raimi Marvel films, and a gentle patriarch in several family sitcoms. The man can do good guy and bad guy with ease, making him one of the industry's most formidable multi-dimensional actors working today.
But his latest project, Starz's Counterpart, sees him going truly multi-dimensional. Simmons plays a man named Howard Silk — I take that back. Simmons plays two men named Howard Silk, the same person from different universes, in the engaging science-fiction spy thriller that'll leave your head swelling with thoughts.
One Howard is your typical corporate schlub who does his job like a good worker bee with no questions asked. The other Howard is a high-level inter-dimensional spy, brimming with confidence and attitude (and some sweet leather jackets). Naturally, the two can't believe the other turned out how they did.
This is the crux of Counterpart, the question of how small decisions could make huge impacts on our lives visualized through characters who split apart into two copies about three decades ago. Is kind, meek Howard from our universe the optimal Howard? Or is the icy spy Howard the most realized version of Howard Silk there can be?
It's like Sliding Doors but with way more shootouts. It's like Breaking Bad fan fiction where early Walter White becomes roommates with end-of-series Heisenberg. It's Seasons 3 and 4 of Fringe, the TV show. And it is, from the handful of episodes that Starz sent to press, a total blast to watch.
The brief spoiler-free download on Counterpart is that Howard 1 finds his mind blown — the multiple dimensions aren't public knowledge — when he's roped into a murder investigation by Howard 2; the very sight of watching Simmons meet himself (and vice versa) is worth giving the first episode a gander. The two form a kinship while the bureaucracy of keeping the two dimensions unaware of each other intervenes, leaving doubts about who to trust and questions of every character's self interest. From there, story unspools briskly, the world is built like puzzle pieces falling into place and side characters get meaty twists as Counterpart frolics in its dual-world set up. Simmons is worth the price of admission, but it's the complex story, themes of identity and potential of the series that makes it seem like a steal.
"We have a show bible for this that is a-- it's like a giant hundred page-long set of stereo instructions," creator Justin Marks recently said at the Television Critics Association winter press tour. "It is the driest, most complicated, most irritating and annoying thing for anyone to read besides the writers."
The story is held up by Cold War sentiments — aided by the show being set in Berlin — with each world using spies, assassins and possibly biological warfare against the other for reasons unknown other than the fact that you too would have a hard time trusting a person who looked just like you. But it can get worse for others. Imagine you're Howard 1 and you see the facsimile of your wife (Olivia Williams), who's in a coma in your world but conscious and well in the other world... and possibly in the middle of this mess you're in. That should give you an idea of the paranoia that Counterpart thrives on.
Counterpart premieres Sunday, Jan 21 at 8/7c on Starz.