In the excellent, intriguing and occasionally action-packed “Counterpart,” beginning Sunday on Starz, a contemporary Cold War thriller has been erected on a science-fiction foundation: An experiment 30 years ago accidentally split reality into two, as lightning might split a tree. These separately evolving planes have remained connected by a passage – in Berlin, appropriately enough – a supernatural Checkpoint Charlie kept secret from almost everyone in either world.
An apparatus has grown up around maintaining this portal. At the bottom of this bureaucracy are clueless “interface” men, who speak codes they don’t understand to men who don’t understand them. Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) is one of these. One day, he is called upstairs by his young, somewhat callow boss (the excellent Harry Lloyd), and introduced to his “other,” an outwardly identical Howard from the other world who is at once his twin and himself. Mind blown!
But where Our Howard, as we shall call him for clarity, is a mild-mannered drone, Other Howard is a secret agent in search of an assassin who has come over from his reality to ours and wants to take over Our Howard’s life for a while. And where Our Howard is a nice guy who loves his wife (the great Olivia Williams, in a coma as we open), Other Howard is not particularly nice – “disappointing” is his blunt assessment of his second self – though he may turn out to be a good guy in the end, who possibly loves his wife. It is sometimes hard to tell who the good guys are here, but that is a feature of spy stories, and just how this one has been arranged.
Viewers familiar with the old Fox series “Fringe,” in which alternate worlds were at war, or the recent German Netflix series “Dark,” with its portal through time, may feel neurons firing in recognition. But what sets “Counterpart” apart is that the sci-fi elements are mostly beside the point. Created by Justin Marks (who wrote the live-action “Jungle Book” film), this is an almost straightforward political thriller, with the worlds analogous in attitude to what we used to think of East and West.
“There was one reality and then it duplicated, nobody knows how,” Other Howard tells Our Howard. “Well, maybe somebody knows. But they’re not telling.” That’s as deep as they go (at least in the six episodes I’ve seen). There are no death rays, no flying cars. Guns shoot bullets. Cars drive on the ground. Travel from one world to the other – entirely on official business – involves inoculations, visas and stone-faced border agents. Apart from a dark passageway and some barred doors, it resembles going through airport customs, only less annoying.
Seen from Our Howard’s perspective, it’s something out of the Alfred Hitchcock playbook -- an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. At the same time, the series has the flavor of John le Carré or Len Deighton, a tale of defectors and double agents, diplomats and ideologues, and intelligence professionals trying to keep down the body count and contain the chaos. “Counterpart” is “about” these sort of stories even as it’s one itself — with the complication that any character might have a doppelganger to work alongside or against. You do have to pay attention.
Espionage narratives often involve questions of identity, of course, with players pretending to be someone they’re not — and forgetting who they are. But “Counterpart” multiplies the possibilities: These folks can pretend to be someone they actually are.
Ideas about nature and nurture are therefore inevitably batted about, such as what makes a person the person they are. “Genetics, childhood, we’re helpless to our experience,” says Other Howard. “The difference between you and me could be a single moment. One little thing gone wrong.”
“Or right,” says Our Howard, who is more upbeat, and more innocent, and needs to believe in the rightness of his mostly lived life.
Some elements don’t bear too much inspection. The depiction of the other Berlin, though distinguished by having twisty glass buildings digitally dropped in, is drab and depressed and depopulated in a way that seems more designed to prop up a metaphor than fully imagine a world. (They only have flip phones on the other side, which suffered a pandemic our world did not experience, but the oceans are cleaner.)
One welcome aspect of the series is that it puts older performers at its center. Age is part of the story – Howard needs to be old enough to have a shared memory with his other self, and to have grown into a different person, and Simmons, 62, does well playing both the soft-edged salaryman and the sleek secret agent, making them easy to tell apart without resorting to caricature.
But it is also pleasant on its own terms to see Simmons, a fine actor and Oscar winner (“Whiplash”) who rarely gets such parts, as the leading man – leading men, and to watch him work with Williams (who is 49). They have a soulfulness and authority that only comes from having lived a little.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd