What if you discovered that the boring job you’ve been doing for decades at a boring UN agency is actually the gateway to an alternative universe where your doppelganger is an exciting James Bond-esque spy?
That’s what bland, unassuming Howard discovers one day, as his quiet and boring life suddenly becomes more like a spy thriller than his normal dull life.
Counterpart (Seasons 1-2 are on Showmax) combines the nostalgia for the Cold War, the mysterious allure of Berlin and a little supernatural sizzle with a parallel reality. The protagonist (on this side) discovers this well-kept secret as the viewer does, and it plays out delightfully.
A Soviet-Era flashback
Setting it in Berlin, which was the epicentre for Cold War espionage and surreptitiously slipping over “to the other side” like a spy, is appropriately complex. The Berlin that people slip across to does has a Soviet-era feel – the other side has developed differently when the time lines split.
Howard, meet Howard
You may recognise JK Simmons from the Spider Man reboot where he played the grumpy newspaper editor who is Peter Parker’s day-job boss. He also played the same character – Dr Emil Skoda – in four different series, albeit versions of Law & Order.
The best supporting actor Oscar for 2014’s Whiplash makes JK Simmons one of 14 actors to win the Academy Award, BAFTA Award, Critics’ Choice Award, Golden Globe Award and SAG Award for the same performance, according to IMDB.
The season is worth watching to see Simmons play two Howards – one the wide-eyed and innocent protagonist and the other world-weary Bond-like spy doppelganger. He plays each like they are different characters, or divergent personalities from one starting place.
Timelines splitting like Berlin
These two different realities split from one and, through various circumstances, ended up at vastly different places.
This is like Berlin itself, half of which ended up after World War II in Allied hands and the other in the Russians. It has always been a fascinating real-world example of different political and socioeconomic systems at play.
Berlin was a real test case of this, and therefore a fitting setting for a very decent show about a hypothetical split in our modern realities.
Like the Cold War it emulates, Counterpart depicts the various political machinations in complex political systems engaged in a Cold War interaction with the other. Not being seen to meddle nor manipulate, while doing exactly that. Art imitates life as much as life imitates art, it seems.
Solid supporting cast
The other characters also meet their doubles on this side, and sometimes kill them (but I won’t spoil anything).
His wife is played by the superb Olivia Williams (who starred in Manhattan, Rushmore and Dollhouse) and there is a good supporting role for Harry Lloyd (who played Viserys Targaryen in Game of Thrones) and for the accomplished Stephen Rea (who will always be remembered for The Crying Game).