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TV Review: J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams in ‘Counterpart’ on Starz

Counterpart” is quite likely to appeal to fans of a few different genres. A smartly constructed and atmospheric spy thriller, “Counterpart’s” first allegiance is to hushed conversations, dangerous secrets, and the kind of shadowy alleys and darkened hallways traversed by secret agents.

But “Counterpart” is also a work of speculative fiction, and it uses its graceful and well-modulated sci-fi elements to ask thoughtful questions about missed opportunities, identity, and what happens when people get unexpected chances to remake their lives.

And if that weren’t enough, “Counterpart” is also a handsome, character-driven serial for adults. It avoids many of the traps of the Prestige Drama category: It’s brisk, sardonic, and has moments of bittersweet sadness, but it’s not enamored of predictable grimness or uninspired transgression. And whatever genre you gravitate to, “Counterpart” is made immensely enjoyable by excellent performances from J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams, among others.

As the drama begins, Simmons’ character — a glorified clerk named Howard Silk — goes through the motions of his strange daily ritual: Like his fellow pencil pushers, he goes into a cubicle to exchange pre-determined messages with a man on the other side of a glass in a similar cubicle. What are these men doing? What are the messages for? After years in the same job, Howard doesn’t really know, and his desire to be promoted — and to fully understand what the mysterious bureaucracy he works for does — is met with condescending indifference.

But things take a turn, and anyone who enjoyed the best era of the Fox drama “Fringe” will probably appreciate what happens next. (And if you’d prefer not to know, now’s the time to stop reading.)

As happened with several characters on “Fringe,” Howard finds out that there is a copy of him in a parallel universe. In “Counterpart,” that other world is accessible via a strictly controlled — but dank and creepy — tunnel. This copy of the reality inhabited by Howard and everyone he knows split off a few decades back for reasons no one understands, and only a few elites on both sides are aware of its existence.

The other side — which has suffered pandemics and looks quite repressive — has established relations with officials in Howard’s department, which engages in diplomacy even as it spies on residents of the other world. But after a few decades of peace, the two realities have diverged politically and socially, and a cold war has broken out. As the story gains steam, Howard and his much tougher doppelganger from the other side become increasingly involved in the complicated conflict.

The drama does a good job of visually drawing distinctions between the two worlds, and Simmons is a joy to watch as he plays both the cynical version of Howard and his sweeter, kinder “twin.” The two Howards made different choices and went on different journeys as a result, and Simmons does an excellent job of indicating the moments in which each man envies — or begins to resent — the other man’s life. Williams’ character holds secrets in both arenas, and her empathic, quietly watchful work is a brilliant match for Simmons’ precise performance. Standouts in the supporting cast include Nazanin Boniadi, Sara Serraiocco, Harry Lloyd, Stephen Rea and Richard Schiff.

The central conflict between the worlds drives much of the narrative, but the exact nature and cause of the conflict remain a little too vague for much of the first season. Not that the viewer requires a side to root for — both parties clearly have understandable pressures and problems they need to resolve — but knowing what they were fighting for might make buying into several core characters’ dilemmas a bit easier. That said, the cast is so good and the worlds are so cleverly realized that it’s easy to fall down this particular rabbit hole.

Unlike too many shows leaning on science-fiction elements, “Counterpart” uses its otherworldly premise to examine moral, psychological and emotional dilemmas. The clashing timelines aren’t there just to supply scenes of assassins kicking ass and espionage operatives trading tart dialogue; “Counterpart” takes advantage of the deeper opportunities presented by the parallel world. Characters make choices based on personal grievances, fleeting love and lost chances — not just the hard-won intelligence they can glean from a familiar world they are drawn to, but don’t fully understand.

Drama; 10 episodes (6 reviewed); Starz, 8 p.m. Sun. Jan. 21. 60 min.

Executive producers, Justin Marks, Amy Berg, Gary Gilbert, Jordan Horowitz, Keith Redmon, Bard Dorros, Morten Tyldum.

Cast, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd, Nazanin Boniadi, Nicholas Pinnock, Sara Serraiocco, Ulrich Thomson, Mido Hamada, Stephen Rea, Richard Schiff, Kenneth Choi, Nolan Gerard Funk.

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TV Review: J.K. Simmons and Olivia Williams in 'Counterpart' on Starz

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