One of the best, most intriguing, gripping and well-made dramas of the new year starts this weekend. And it features what is, even this early in 2018, one of the truly outstanding performances.
Counterpart (Sunday, The Movie Network, 8 p.m. ET and on-demand on CraveTV) is an old-fashioned espionage thriller taken to a warped new level. Creator and executive producer Justin Marks has said he spent much of his youth reading John le Carré and Graham Greene and he poured the "tropes, conventions and language" of that thriller genre into a very contemporary drama.
The espionage is fuzzy at first but this is emphatically a character-driven show. It's also sci-fi in a way – double versions of its characters in two worlds, parallel existences that have small but significant differences.
The series opens in Berlin with mayhem. A dead body, a dangerous woman and talk of "getting to the other side." Then we meet Howard (J.K. Simmons), who works for a secretive United Nations outfit in Berlin. He's not even sure what it is they do. Maybe it's cracking codes and deciphering intelligence reports. But he's been doing the same job methodically for almost 30 years and is not about to ask questions. He would like a promotion, though – something different from the closed cubicle he enters every day. On one of those ordinary days, he is summoned to meet one of the bosses. In a scene admirable for its economy, Howard meets his doppelganger – a man who comes to be known as Other Howard.
The boss explains to him that decades ago, during the Cold War, the East Germans conducted an experiment, there was an "accident" and, somehow, "a world identical to ours" was created. It still exists. Same people, with the same lives and traits, but there are some differences.
What's going on, at the concept level, is a playful iteration of the Cold War itself – the "other side" might be East Berlin and in East Berlin "the other side" might be the West. "We keep a lid on it," the boss says to a baffled Howard. Other Howard isn't baffled at all. He's on a mission. An assassin – a woman – has been sent over from the other side to kill somebody on Howard's side. He knows about this stuff. He's not a bland bureaucrat like Howard. He's aggressive, a man of action.
Some weight, but not gravitas, is given to the philosophical issues. What events or experiences fundamentally change people? If these characters on the two sides are duplicates, what makes some evolve differently? The assassin, Baldwin (Sara Serraiocco), is an efficient, cold-blooded killer on one side. Her double is a violinist, not given to violence at all. So, what is it that can give people such separate moral compasses when they are supposed to be the same? In the opening episode there's a great scene in which Howard, having witnessed another version of himself, demands that promotion.
Simmons owns the show. It is a fabulous piece of acting – he uses small, tiny tics of behaviour and body movement to indicate he's not Howard, he's Other Howard. It's wonderful to watch, this tour-de-force of duplication. Counterpart is very highly recommended – it's beautifully made, smart and deftly crafted to unleash surprises and twists. Addictive and admirable from the get-go.
Absentia (Sunday, Showcase, 9 p.m.) is another new thriller, interesting but dull when put beside Counterpart. It does, however, have one floridly bravura performance. That's from Stana Katic (Heroes, Castle) who stars as Emily, an FBI agent who has disappeared and is declared dead, in absentia. She was abducted by a serial killer, it is believed – a particularly nasty piece of work. That guy, Conrad (Richard Brake), is convicted of her murder and sent to jail. Her husband, fellow agent Nick (Patrick Heusinger), has remarried and is raising their son with a new partner when things open.
Then he gets a call saying Emily is alive. She is – and the drama is about her reclaiming her life. But, you know, after being missing for six years, there is suspicion that she went over to the dark side of things. She could be a murderer.
Katic is terrifically physical in the role, all gusto and distraught rage. The drama is really about unravelling the mystery of her absence. It's mildly gripping, not to be dismissed, but sometimes let down by obviousness and by some bizarre underperforming by actors around Katic. As a killer-thriller, Absentia is oddly subdued.