Watch this: “Counterpart,” a Kafkaesque sci-fi spy show about the roads not taken

One of two Howards.
One of two Howards.
Image: Starz
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This is the first entry in Watch This, a Quartzy recommendation series that will spotlight one unusual film or television show to check out. You’ll find all subsequent entries here.

  • Series: Counterpart
  • Network: Starz
  • Premiere: Sunday, Jan. 21
  • For fans of: FringeTinker Tailor Soldier SpyThe Trial

Why settle for one J.K. Simmons, when you can have two? Counterpart, a new sci-fi series that debuts Sunday (Jan. 21) on Starz, proves that when it comes to the veteran actor, the more the merrier.

In Counterpart, Simmons plays Howard Silk, a cog in the bureaucratic machine of a mysterious United Nations agency based in Berlin. Howard’s job involves some sort of tiresome, inscrutable translation work, and that’s all he or the audience knows about it. He dreams of moving up the chain, where he might actually learn something about the secret work the agency is doing. But at his age (Simmons is 63), Howard is mostly resigned to the fact that he’ll never be much more than he is, a lonely bureaucrat going through the motions of the last stretch of his career. Howard’s sole diversion from the frustration of the agency is his nightly post-work visit to his comatose wife (Olivia Williams) in the hospital.

Here’s the sci-fi twist: Simmons also plays another Howard Silk, nicknamed “Howard Prime,” a version of Howard that exists in a parallel reality. You see, the agency Howard works for was created to conceal and monitor a crossing into another dimension created 30 years earlier, after a scientific experiment went awry. Over the course of those 30 years, the two realities slowly diverged, each bifurcation leading to infinite new branches.

Though Howard and Howard Prime are genetically identical, they exhibit completely different personalities as the result of three decades worth of choices. Howard is meek, quiet, doleful. Howard Prime, in his world not a lowly cog for the agency but rather an experienced spy, is assertive, suave, Bond-like.

Simmons’ ability to differentiate the two is nothing short of miraculous: His breathing, posture, and gait all change from one Howard to the other. You instantly know which Howard you’re looking at, without them even having to say anything. The Whiplash actor, who’s done mostly supporting roles and is recognizable to many from his deadpan character in ads for Farmers Insurance, was due for a really meaty role to chew on. Starz gave him two.

Image: Starz

Alternate universes aren’t anything new in science fiction, which has been exploring them for hundreds of years—the concept dates back to ancient Hindu mythology. What makes Counterpart original is the combination of the heady futuristic concept with a gripping espionage thriller. The series is indisputably a science fiction story, but it feels more like a Cold War-era spy story, with hushed back room conversations, clandestine operations, and moody lighting (most scenes take place at night). Counterpart is what you might get if John Le Carré and Phillip K. Dick sat down and decided to write a TV show together.

Howard Prime crosses over into Howard’s universe to track an assassin that escaped his. He enlists Howard’s help, knowing that having a perfect lookalike might come in handy over the course of his investigation. There are twists and mysteries and tradecraft aplenty, and while you might lose track of the plot now and then (what John Le Carré book doesn’t have a challenging story?), you’ll never lose interest, mainly because of Simmons’ total commitment to two wonderfully distinct roles and the seamless integration of two disparate genres.

Counterpart is already well worth watching at this point, but there’s one more source of inspiration that places the Starz drama in “must watch” territory: Franz Kafka. In The Trial and The Metamorphosis, Kafka explored the surreal helplessness and confusion of cogs like Howard when trying to take on an enigmatically powerful bureaucratic institution. Howard is like K. in The Trial, trying desperately to push back against a faceless authority, but instead of gaining clarity he just falls deeper and deeper into a pit of weirdness that grows more inexplicable the more he tries to explain it.

Starz has already ordered two 10-episode seasons, demonstrating the trust the pay-cable network has in the new drama. You, too, should put your trust in Simmons and company, and check out Counterpart as soon as you can.