‘Counterpart’ Season 2 Review: Sci-Fi/Spy Thriller Doubles Down and Comes Up Short

When it debuted earlier this year, I compared Starz’s Counterpart simultaneously to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Fringe and The Parent Trap. Such was the unlikely yet appealing combination of genres and tones used to tell the story of Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), a meek government bureaucrat who discovers that there’s a parallel reality whose own Howard Silk is a ruthless spy. At times it was a calculated Cold War thriller, at times a wistful sci-fi tale about the divergences between the two worlds, at times just a chance for Oscar winner Simmons to showcase the many subtle ways the same man could be so very different depending on his circumstances.

Series with this many components can be like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Navigated wisely, they can offer enormous value, but overload your plate, or just get the mix of dishes wrong, and you’ll regret it. Counterpart, despite being a very good show in its first season, was not a particularly well-balanced one. The story of the Howard Silk was enormously compelling thanks to Simmons’ gift for playing up even the smallest details. But the spy-fi of it all was often a drag.

Partly, that was because stories about the conflict between the two worlds tended to put the focus on characters who were not Howard Silk. The ensemble features a number of fine actors, including Olivia Williams (Howard’s wife Emily on both Earths), Harry Lloyd (Peter Quayle, a high-strung manager in the organization that protects our reality from the other one), Nazanin Boniadi (Quayle’s wife Clare, a sleeper agent from over there), Richard Schiff (Quayle’s father-in-law, who has no idea his real daughter has been murdered and replaced by the other Clare) and Sara Serraiocco (Baldwin, an assassin with a facial scar that makes her look like she’s always smirking). But with all due respect, none of those actors are J.K. Simmons, and none of their characters have been invested with nearly as much life and care as Howard. Howard is a rich enough role that he could be at the center of a show in many genres, where if you took away the Byzantine trans-dimensional plotting of this one, most of the supporting characters would barely exist.

As for that tangle of story, it feels at times as if Counterpart creator Justin Marks looked at the collected works of John Le Carré and said, “Not confusing enough!” Take all the usual espionage tropes and add in the idea of alternate dimensions and characters switching places with their doppelgangers, and you’ve at minimum doubled the amount of effort needed to keep everything straight.

Fortunately, the first season focused on Howard as much as possible without working Simmons to exhaustion. And it periodically found ways to bring clarity to everything else, like an episode-length recounting of how one Clare came to steal the life of the other. But the first three episodes of Season Two, which debuts Sunday, feel like someone at the buffet loaded up on boring side dishes and ignored the amazing entrees. Both Howards are absent for long stretches as the series not only doubles down on the convoluted plot between the two worlds, but keeps adding one new character after another — some doubles of ones we already know, many not — until the only possible way to keep up is to build a conspiracy board like you’re Charlie on Always Sunny looking for Pepe Silvia and Carol from HR. The season premiere takes place entirely in our world, the second episode in the one that’s home to spy Howard (though currently occupied by bureaucrat Howard, since the two swapped places late last season, then got trapped when the border-crossing between the worlds shut down). It’s an attempt to clarify the state of play on each and raise the stakes for the ensemble. But that strategy assumes a much greater appeal to the interior life of someone like Peter Quayle than actually exists. Worse, the episodes begin to feel like work on a scale where no narrative reward will be proper compensation. Every now and then, Simmons will be back onscreen working opposite Williams or, as a new friend our Howard makes in his travels, James Cromwell, and Counterpart will spark back to life again. But far too often, it feels like a star vehicle determined to prove it’s anything but — and squandering its most valuable resource as a result.

The advantage of doing a show that tackles multiple genres at once is that you’re liable to attract different groups of viewers. I expect some will be pleased by the new season’s focus on the conspiracy plot over the character drama. But from this vantage point, it seems a wild miscalculation.

When we do see spy Howard in the new episodes, he’s helping real-world Emily recover from a failed assassination attempt. Her memory is fractured and she’s having trouble remembering basic words and concepts.

“What’s the word when everything’s a bit off?” she asks him, not realizing the man in front of her isn’t actually her husband.

“Strange?” the other Howard suggests.

Whatever word Emily Silk is searching for, apply it to Counterpart Season Two.

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