Something’s wrong with this world. A pandemic has killed millions; society’s reaction has been to enforce the wearing of masks, discourage people from gathering in public, and make vaccination mandatory. The pandemic was obviously man-made, and we think it was developed by our enemies, but we’re also not sure if it was perhaps released accidentally. A shadowy department of the United Nations exercises authority and deadly force seemingly at will and without repercussions. The bosses are “scientists” who hide behind technology and speak only through blank-faced, menacing interpreters.
This is the plot of a television series that was, ahem, filmed in 2017.
(Some mild spoilers after the jump, although the series final resolution won’t be discussed.)
Counterpart is one of the highest-rated entries in “Rotten Tomatoes” history, scoring 100% with critics and 90% with viewers. The premise is this: Near the end of the Cold War, a German scientist working on a cyclotron in East Berlin accidentally split the world into identical “Alpha” and “Prime” copies. During the first moments after this accident, everything happens in identical, or at least similar fashion, but over time the two worlds diverge. Very few people in either world know this has happened; the secret is closely held and the average citizen would be horrified to know otherwise. It’s possible to travel from one world to the other at “the crossing” beneath the building that originally housed the cyclotron. As a result, in both worlds that facility becomes an “Office of Interchange” through which trade and diplomacy is conducted.
The “Alpha” side is essentially the world of 2017, while “Prime” is different in one big way: there was a flu-like pandemic in 1997 that killed about seven percent of the population. Prime has advanced medical technology, including a cure for HIV, but it doesn’t have smartphones. The two sides trade tech cautiously and sparingly, although the alert viewer will notice that they both have up-to-date German cars that are essentially identical.
We learn all of this through Howard Silk, a fellow who is a minor functionary on the “Alpha” side but whose counterpart in Prime is a battle-hardened spy and assassin. They’ve been married to the same woman on both sides, but the stories of those women are very different. When Prime Howard crosses over and demands a meeting with Alpha Howard, the meat of the series begins.
Counterpart is an authentic joy to watch, for so many reasons. To begin with, it’s a grownup show about grownups, with virtually every major character in their mid-forties or older. J.K. Simmons, familiar from various TV police shows and Whiplash, turns in a performance for the ages here, as does his wife, superbly portrayed in wrinkled-and-worried fashion by former Waterworld cutie Olivia Williams. The primary villain of the show is played by flawless Berlin-born model/actress/surgeon (yes, really) Christiane Paul, who drives a perfect W126 sedan because of course a German girl would. I could rewatch this series five times just to watch her handle a pistol; in one scene she executes seven people with a Glock in a way that would make any IPSC competitor weep a single joyful tear. Very few actors, and pretty much zero actresses, bother to actually line up their sights when they are pretending to shoot but Christiane works and pivots from her core muscles in this wonderful modified isosceles stance… I’ll stop now, I promise.
This being The Current Year, the cast is force-fed race-diverse in a way that would puzzle anyone with actual experience visiting or living in Berlin, but it’s not much more than window dressing. Predictably, every “terrorist” or “bad guy” is a white European, with the exception of one Iranian-British actress. For some reason the second season brings us a black female American FBI agent who is also a devout Muslim; this is done primarily so we can have lovingly filmed long shots of her saying “Allahu Akbhar”. That being said, the actual lady in question is a fine actress, which is par for the Counterpart course. Virtually everyone has to play two versions of themselves, and it’s a credit to all involved that there’s never a question as to who’s who in a scene.
It’s hard to imagine any reasonably intelligent person not being captivated by this series, as much for what they don’t show you as for what they do. The gradual progression from individual drama to the-fate-of-the-world-is-at-stake is handled without overly straining the viewer’s willingness to believe. It’s beautifully filmed on location in Berlin in a way that conveys the subtle alienation of the Prime world from ours while also conveying the fundamental difference between the former East Germany and modern America. You couldn’t believe in Counterpart were it set in Palo Alto; the Brutalist architecture and relentless lack of private space displayed in the show condition you to accept some outrageous ideas well before they are actually presented.
The best part of Counterpart, for what it’s worth, is the show’s refusal to let any of its characters be simple. The “good guys” are occasionally exposed as sadistic autocrats even as the “bad guys” turn out to have ample justification for their actions. Again and again, the message is hammered home that people are the product of their chaotic environments — but also that there is as much nature as there is nurture in the human character.
It wasn’t renewed for a third season; the STARZ channel said that the audience was “too male” and that therefore it didn’t fit in with the “premium female” approach envisioned for future content. This kind of ridiculous tripe is perfectly plausible in 2020 but I suspect there’s a bigger reason, namely the pandemic that figures so heavily in the plot. The idea that our enemies might inflict a deadly virus on us — and that the reactions, namely mandatory masking, vaccination, and “social distancing”, are both cowardly and Orwellian — no longer plays very well with a Uniparty that has openly embraced COVID-19 as a plausible reason to rebuild society into a world where the proles “own nothing, and are happy”.
To be blunt, Counterpart sends a dangerous message to the hoi polloi. It’s too easy to equate China to the Alpha world, in which the economy chugs along, the kids are still in school, and the factories are still open — which leaves America as the Prime world, masked-up and locked-down and carefully burning every remaining small business to the ground in the process, all for the greater glory and profitability of Facebook/Amazon/Google. The secondary message of the series, that it might be morally justifiable to retaliate in kind, is of course beyond the Pale of reasonable discussion nowadays, although it seems difficult to pin down who declared it so.
Speaking of — Counterpart is currently free to watch on Amazon Prime, which amounts to feeding the beast but what can you do. My right-leaning readers won’t like the Twitter account of showrunner Justin Marks, but I view his electronic fusillades of FUCK DRUMPF to be high ironic comedy given that his show has no love for a world in which the UN runs things and there is no higher authority than a shadowy cabal of scientists. And in any event he’s already paid the Woke Tax by losing his show’s third season. Not all artistry requires self-awareness. Perhaps he just spent it all on Counterpart, the watching of which is hereby recommended.