The Understated, Underrated Genius of Counterpart.


There was a time when I lamented the cheesiness of televised science fiction. Sure, Star Trek and Babylon 5 played with cool ideas—  ideas you wouldn’t encounter anywhere else on the broadcast landscape— but why, when recommending them to the uninitiated, did I always have to start with “If you can look past the acting/writing/production values…”?  It was like some Faustian deal: we’ll give you your Big Ideas, but by God, you’ll cringe at the way we dole them out…

Of course, that was before the rebirth of Battlestar Galactica and Westworld. It was before The Handmaid’s Tale transcended not just genre but Television itself, erupted into the real world as protesters marched down the streets of Washington DC in white hoods and red cloaks. It was before Game of Thrones won more Emmy Awards than any other show in the history of television.

And it was before an obscure little show called Counterpart lived and died and left scarcely a ripple. It is Counterpart I mourn today: one of the most underrated, understated SF series in recent memory.

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it. You can be even be forgiven if you have heard of it— watched it, even— and never realized it was SF. The dialog, the acting, the sets— nothing about that show so much as whispered SF except the premise. In this way Counterpart shares a lot with Ronald Moore’s Galactica reboot. Moore explicitly wanted to make  “science fiction for people who hate science fiction”: something that would sneak under your guard and let you think you were watching a drama set on a present-day aircraft carrier until some unexpected FX shot gave it all away with its starfields and spaceships. Parts of Counterpart‘s world  looked downright retro (another parallel with BSG), for reasons which only gradually emerged over time.


The premise: back in eighties-era Berlin, a supercollider mishap splits our timeline into two parallels, Alpha and Prime.  A bridge exists in the sub-basement where the experiment went awry: a portal between  worlds. People go back and forth. There are no special effects, no cheesy CGI lightning or ripply Stargate water-disks. There’s a booth where you get your visa from a bored civil servant; a flight of stairs leading down into the tunnel. You walk through that dingy neutral zone and emerge into a parallel universe. It’s all very hush-hush; only a few in either timeline know of the existence of the other.

You are never allowed to make contact with your alternate self— your “other”, in the series’ vernacular. That’s assuming your other is even alive— because, of course, those two universes diverged over time. Not much, not at first; for a decade or so, their histories were almost identical. Then Prime was struck with some kind of superflu pandemic, while Alpha sailed on serenely unscathed.

At which point things diverged really fast. Earth Prime lost 7% of its population; their efforts combating the superflu put them miles ahead of Alpha in terms of medical research and expertise, but languishing in other areas. Prime still uses old-fashioned monochrome cathode-ray displays while Alpha races ahead with flatscreens and iPads. Now we understand why Alpha operatives leave their smart phones behind when crossing timelines, why even showing such technology to visitors from the other world is a violation of protocol; Earth Prime never developed the smart phone. We come to understand why there’s so much security at the crossing, so much distrust between worlds, why this show feels so much like a cold-war drama even beyond the obvious symbolism of its Berlin setting. Where did that superflu come from, after all? Why did it affect one timeline and not the other? Are both sides already in a state of war, undeclared?

The beautiful irony, of course, is that the people running the UN’s “Office of Interchange” aren’t suspicious of foreigners or aliens or incompatible ideologies; the timelines, after all, are parallel. These people literally do not trust themselves. There’s some seriously warped commentary on Human Nature right there.

All of what I’ve described is backstory. All of it has gone down before the first episode even begins; we get to fill in the pieces retrospectively, over the course of twenty compelling episodes. The series proper begins with Howard Silk: a bureaucrat in a dead-end job, someone so low on the totem pole that even after thirty years at the Office of Interchange he still doesn’t know exactly what he does there. It begins when he meets his other self— a supremely self-assured, ultracompetent field agent equally at home— and equally lethal— in both worlds. And it continues with an exploration of how such utterly different people could have emerged from a common starting point.

J.K. Simmons— the actor playing the Howards— is a one-man master class in understatement. He doesn’t have to speak a word and you know which iteration you’re watching by the tension in his shoulders, the way he holds himself. The body language is simultaneously subtle and unmistakable. And the scripts do something similar, convey epic divergence in the lowest of keys. Who would have thought that history could hinge so irrevocably on whether or not some middle-aged man gave his daughter a cassette tape of popular music? I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a nuanced exploration of Butterfly Effects.

While you won’t find any special effects in Counterpart, you will find terrorist attacks and germ warfare, violinists and assassins (big surprise, they’re the same person); massacres and love stories. High-energy physics. Gulags and realpolitik and broken people in broken marriages. Science fiction, after all, isn’t just about change. It’s about the impact of that change on people and society, and in that sense— while the genre has frequently been both described as “the literature of ideas” and derided as “the literature of cardboard characters”— you can make a case that SF without good characterizations fails in its mission almost by definition. Counterpart most definitely does not fail as SF.

It failed as a TV show, though. A couple of months ago, its creators announced that Counterpart is dead after a mere two seasons. It just couldn’t attract enough viewers, out of all the people on two Earths. And I think that’s a shame; Counterpart was more than just SF for people who hate SF.

It was SF for people who love the stuff, too.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 27th, 2019 at 3:45 pm and is filed under ink on art. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

23 Responses to “The Understated, Underrated Genius of Counterpart.”

  1. John Eff

    Is there some place we can send bags of peanuts to, to get them to complete the 3rd season and wrap up the story line?

  2. Candas

    Absolutely adored Counterpart! It and Sense8 (despite its hurried, plot-centric resolution due to series cancellation/wrapup) are my 2 picks for really smart specfic, and they are SO different. But so well realised. So pleased to have you in essence write exactly what I was thinking about it. Great minds and all that?

  3. AP

    Where do I watch this?

  4. Nestor

    Oh shit, I saw trailers for it, assumed it was something along the lines of homeland and never even considered watching it.

    They hid the SF too well.

  5. Fatman

    Oh shit, I saw trailers for it, assumed it was something along the lines of homeland and never even considered watching it.

    They hid the SF too well.

    That was exactly my reaction. The trailer looked intriguing, but the Homeland-ish vibe put me off completely. Also I feel like some higher viewing priority came out at around the same time.

  6. David Roman

    It was a great idea, poorly implemented. The pace was glacial, and the writing wasn’t very creative. It all was often confusing too. JK Simmons was extraordinary though.

  7. Johan Larson

    Having watched most of the first season, my take is that they had a really neat idea, but it needed a bit more pizzazz. They should have made the far-side more clearly divergent so that at least some aspects of it looked futuristic. This would have emphasized to viewers that yes, this was a sci-fi show, damn it. And they should have made sure to include all those bits in the ads.

  8. Johan Larson

    Where do I watch this?

    I found it on iTunes.

  9. Jeff B

    I watched the first episode on the Starz website, and really dug it. Wanted to see more but don’t have cable. Sorry to see it go.

    Maybe it’ll get picked up by Amazon Prime, who seems all in on fantasy and science fiction content, for a third season. Maybe Netflix. I hope so.

  10. Andrew Randrianasulu

    Ideas, ideas ..unfortunately whole thing (sci-fi, on both parts – Science and Fiction) aparently died for me exactly because it doesn’t make kind of lasting changes we need :/ More power to already overpowered idiots? Sure. More illusions of possibility, more outdated concepts constantly reusing? Sure/ Real progressive chnage in way viewrs think and act? Not.

    While I think some kind of butterfly effect actually happen on small-ish scale:
    We didn’t know it at the time, but Cobain’s suicide marked the beginning of rock’s slow decline, [ ….] The fault lines had already started forming in Cobain’s lifetime, but there’s a strong reason to believe his loss accelerated the inevitable.

    Yes, you can say things in general still move ..somewhere. But what I hate in all those grand delusions exactly how they give false hopes and lock minds, instead of actually providing/supporting/fueling more and more urgently needed change. Fail, epic fail.

  11. Jeremy C

    On why it did not attract enough viewers… Amazon does a shite job of advertising it’s Prime shows. I’m on Amazon every weekend looking for cool new shows/movies, at least on Prime. Even though I watch quite a bit of sci-fi content I was never once served up a suggestion to watch this show. Never heard of it.

    Netflix on the other hand, they do a great job. Their algo’s know that I will watch every last scrap of sci-fi, even low budget low quality shit shows like “Alien Warfare”. Don;t go watch that, it’s 1.5 hrs of the worst acting, worst storyline, worst understanding of basic physics I have ever seen. But I watched it!

  12. Matthew Finnigan

    Jeff B, it’s available from Starz Streaming, $9/mo I think. That’s how we saw it.

  13. Johan Larson

    The second season is better. It moves a bit faster, and has more twists.

    It’s a pity the show ended. I’d gladly have watched a few more seasons.

  14. Hubert Kordas

    I was watching this series since episode one of first season, and we – with my wife – were waiting eagerly on each week for episode to finally land on HBO GO.
    One of the best shows ever. J.K. Simmons is incredible, generally all acting was top notch.
    And I think these two seasons stand for nice, closed story, with no need to expand. There is a cliffhanger at the end, but one which can be left unresolved, and it only adds to quality of the story.
    Highly recommended stuff.

  15. John Rodriguez

    It was a great show, but I don’t think it needed more than the two seasons it got. I mean it could have, but I feel like it would veer into stupid pretty fast after that point. It made its point beautifully and anything after that would have been silly shenanigans like making more Crossings and cold war turned hot drama.

  16. Andrew Randrianasulu

    Andrew Randrianasulu,

    Additionally, I found this blog express some well-founded thinking about real role of science today:
    Capitalism turns living beings into things—objectifies them—to standardize them for sale, and to predict their behavior so they can be more easily dominated. Science is tool of control, much like a gun.

    But that doesn’t mean science can’t be useful in the struggle for liberation. Like a gun, it can be seized and turned against its former owner. […]

    The practices of science—observation of phenomena, analysis, defining general patterns, constructing abstract concepts, and understanding tendencies to chart possible future trajectories—are certainly necessary for us to understand the inner workings of the complex and multi-layered economic system we are living under.

    But let’s not stop there, or believe the claims that science is sufficient for (or capable of) defining all reality. Other forms of interaction and communication with the world, like emotion, physical contact, chemical exchange, dreams, art, poetry and intuition also contribute to our comprehension of truth. Concepts fundamental to modern science, like the subject/object split, are not inherent in the real world, but are culturally determined.*

    The scientific method is strictly limited—for example, one of its main techniques, removing variables, changes the object of study by eliminating context, undesired possibilities, and free will. Science can discover what most rats might do in a situation set up in a laboratory, but this would be different from what they might do at home. Also, scientists usually discard deviations in an effort to standardize results. If 20 rats all respond in slightly different ways to some stimulus, then usually the result is presented as some average of these, ignoring individuality and variation.

    similar questions should be directed at art in general ….

  17. David S.

    Rude word, rude word, rude word. I hadn’t heard that Counterpart had been cancelled! I am bereft, it was such a fantastic series, one of my very favourite shows on TV. I had recommended it to many people, but obviously not enough. Bugger.

  18. Andrés

    Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” plays with a similar idea but with many more parallel timelines and focusing on psychological, social consequences of the construct.

  19. R.

    The series proper begins with Howard Silk: a bureaucrat in a dead-end job, someone so low on the totem pole that even after thirty years at the Office of Interchange he still doesn’t know exactly what he does there. It begins when he meets his other self— a supremely self-assured, ultracompetent field agent equally at home— and equally lethal— in both worlds. And it continues with an exploration of how such utterly different people could have emerged from a common starting point.

    Oh boy, the Long March through the Institutions sure did pay off.

    Like always , I blame Americans, specifically, that asinine twat Wilson. Without him, French would have eaten dirt, Bolsheviks would’ve been shot with extreme prejudice by the Deutsches Heer, eager to cover up a misstep by bureaucrats in their foreign ministry..

  20. Fatman

    Like always , Iblame Americans, specifically, that asinine twat Wilson.

    Strong non sequitur is strong.

    ‘Tho I can’t really find fault with blaming Wilson for something, even if it doesn’t make any sense in this context.

  21. R.

    Fatman: Strong non sequitur is strong.

    Wilson’s decision to enter WWI led to the defeat of Germany in WWI, the rise of Bolshevism, and also to WWII.

    Do you really think a victorious Germany would’ve left Russia to fester under the bolshevik onslaught? That they wouldn’t have been incensed that revolutionaries there slaughtered the kaiser’s cousin?

    And also, they’d have been very keen to bury their own mistake, which was letting Lenin loose in Russia. German foreign ministry certainly didn’t have the USSR in mind when their transported Lenin eastward.

  22. Fatman

    R.: Wilson’s decision to enter WWI led to the defeat of Germany in WWI, the rise of Bolshevism, and also to WWII.

    That’s conjecture. Not particularly well informed conjecture either.

    Russia was a starved, festering corpse well before the Bolsheviks made their appearance. By the end of the war, the Germans had lost two million men, their forces were decimated and underequipped and it’s unlikely that they would have been able to intervene in the Russian civil war to any meaningful extent. The Allied Powers tried to do just that – and failed spectacularly.

    Revanchist fantasies can be a fun exercise. Just not sure how relevant to the discussion.

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