These days, mainstream1 science fiction television falls into two camps. There’s the stuff that’s mined from previously existing IP:2 The CW’s Arrow, ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, and FX’s Legion are all on the short list of examples. Then there’s the stuff that costs a lot: HBO’s Westworld and Netflix’s Stranger Things. Altered Carbon may have set the record for the most expensive first season ever made. But as it turns out, you don’t need to join either of these camps to make a good television show.
Counterpart does just that. It takes place 30 years after the world doubled, creating an identical and parallel universe, connected to ours only through a single underground tunnel in Berlin. As time has passed, the two worlds have diverged a bit more every day, but sharing many features and, most importantly, a collective past. Most of the main characters exist — in some form or another — in each world. Howard Silk, our main character, meets his “other” early in the first episode and they couldn’t be more different. Both Howards, expertly played in completely different ways by JK Simmons, are disappointed in how the other has turned out, and can’t help but wonder what circumstances made them this way.
Where the two camps I mentioned above might see the inability to create mind-blowing special effects or the necessity to build a universe from the ground up as challenges, Counterpart turns them into features. Instead of bloating its story with complicated premises that take an entire episode to explain or futuristic looking gadgets, it prioritizes why it’s interesting over what’s interesting.
In Counterpart, that idea is as old as time itself: identity. And because of that theme, it makes perfect sense when the story morphs into a spy thriller about gaining an upper hand on the other side. Spy fiction is all about identity at heart. Characters angle to figure out who someone is and what it is that they want so that they can use it to their advantage. The premise provides a built in fresh take on the theme of identity and invites us to dive deeper to look at the nature versus nurture aspect of identity. Each Howard wonders aloud which Howard is more essentially Howard and if they switched places would they become each other.
Of course each is a stranger in the other’s life. The assassin Baldwin is one of the more fascinating versions of this idea. She is a cold-blooded killer and we see how her childhood made her into the person she is, but we also see how the same childhood drove her “other” down a much different path. Where Baldwin may never have been able to imagine having a different life than the one she was given, there are always other options. The question transforms from nature versus nurture to choice versus circumstance, a similar but distinct set of ideas.
While characters can spend hours getting lost in the lives they might have had, the main conflict is the ongoing Cold War between worlds, who, because of their divergent paths, discover different things and at different speeds. Our phone technology, for instance, are much more advanced but they discovered giant oil reserves near their Mariana Trench. The September 11th attacks never happened in their world, but a flu epidemic killed off 7% of the world population.
As these timelines continue to diverge, the two worlds lose common ground, becoming more and more separate, and thus their Cold War may be heating up. Even still, Counterpart never loses track of the real gold in its premise, exploring this idea through the differences in the lives of its “others” rather than zooming out to give us the bigger picture.
The result is an original human story that just happens to use science fiction to explore its most interesting questions. It doesn’t take an entire pilot of exposition to get the ball rolling, it starts tumbling down as soon as Howard meets himself.
1. Major network television as well as prestige cable but ignoring the SyFy Channel, they always have sci-fi there ↩
2. Intellectual Property ↩