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Opinion: Evil twins are a thing right now. Hollywood has us seeing doubles for a reason

Will Smith in the doppelganger movie "Gemini Man."
Will Smith in “Gemini Man,” one of Hollywood’s rash of doppelganger movies and TV series.
(Paramount Pictures)

In Hollywood, stories come in cycles. Winston Churchill biopics, mall cop comedies or blockbusters about attacks on the White House get released within months of each other. TV creators and filmmakers offer up parallel versions of the Getty grandson’s kidnapping, and tales of similar mysterious, sense-triggered forces (“A Quiet Place” and “Birdbox”).

The reason for these overlapping projects isn’t that studios or networks are looking to copy their rivals — they’d prefer to be unique. It’s that writers and producers can’t help but tap into what’s in the air. The zeitgeist is real.

With the near-simultaneous releases this month of Paul Rudd’s Netflix series “Living With Yourself” and Will Smith’s feature “Gemini Man,” we are now deep into a story cycle about evil twins, second selves and doppelgangers. Add to these projects “Counterpart,” whose final episode aired on Starz in February, Jordan Peele’s movie “Us,” and a little earlier, the “Twin Peaks” reboot on Showtime, and it’s clear duality is in the cultural ether.

In each of these stories, the second selves pose a threat to the originals, taking over their most important relationships, or trying to end their lives. The evil twins are more confident, more cunning and physically stronger. They aren’t riddled with indecision or guilt — doppelgangers don’t equivocate or compromise. They are vastly superior to the original models in every way but one.

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They lack souls.

Yes, they function better. They’re better at getting — or taking — what they want, but something essential is missing. They have none of the self-defeating quirks, none of the internal messiness, that makes humans human. They are devoid of depth and vulnerability.

Why are Hollywood writers telling these stories? What are they reacting to? Why have so many recent projects independently seized on the same theme?

The answer is likely found in our daily, even hourly, subservience to our own second selves. In gaming and on social media, we have allowed avatars and doppelgangers to take over. We aren’t living our best lives, they are. And they’re doing it at our expense.

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It’s not just a millennial, digital native problem. Too many of us of every generation are slavishly architecting and updating versions of ourselves that appear remarkably successful, happy and loved. These filtered images and stories don’t depict our flaws or shortcomings, unless they are winkingly self-effacing. Look, I’m so cute, I just fell off my paddleboard in Kauai!

Every time we post or tweet this way, our prettiest pictures and our wittiest thoughts belong to them, not us. Our doppelgangers get liked and followed and retweeted. We end up feeding off their scraps, chasing the tail of our avatars’ popularity. We are complicit in our own oblivion.

The story line Hollywood has tapped is an antidote to the alarming and heartbreaking tendency of people across cultures and continents to tether themselves to their more perfect, less real and less interesting facsimiles. It only makes sense that writers would be on the offensive: Good stories require real characters — complicated, unvarnished, flawed.

Think about the best films or series you’ve seen. Whether comedic or tragic, they probably involve leads whose flaws impede the full realization of their happiness. From Bridget Jones to Walter White, from “Friends” to “Fleabag,” the messiness is what makes for a relatable, universal human experience. We are connected by our common failings, our inevitable self-inflicted suffering, and that connection is the wellspring of empathy.

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When too-perfect doppelgangers dominate our lives, and we exist to service them, we may add followers and friends, but we lose each other.

Ethan Drogin is a television writer, most recently an executive producer on “Suits.”


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