When Counterpart launched its first episode two full months before we’d get to see the second, it seemed a fresh and original concept. A gripping idea of an alternate universe accessible only from a subterranean door under a grey, Kafka-esque Berlin government building.
Justin Mark’s pilot hit the necessary beats very well. I felt genuine shock as J.K. Simmons’ Howard Silk met his counterpart from the other world. I empathised with him when visiting his wife’s hospital bedside and I dodged bullets when Baldwin tried to kill her.
Episode two was an exciting, emotional rollercoaster which concentrated on aforementioned beautiful, leather-clad assassin Baldwin and her even more beautiful violin-playing counterpart from our world, both played by Sara Serraiocco.
The premise set up an incredibly interesting nature/nurture thematic question. How was Howard meek and mild in our world yet a bastard in the other? Kinda genius.
Yet as we followed J.K. Simmons between the two mirror universes, the show became more and more confusing. During episode three, I realised that I was only still watching because Simmon’s acting clout (and the clever direction and editing) as he switched between the two versions of Howard Silk.
Then, I realised why the show just wasn’t working for me. Aside from people being more prone to disease (an afterthought, only introduced in episode three), there was no difference between the two interdimensional locations.
The only thing that was different was Howard Silk.
Instead of the New Berlin / Old Berlin imagery suggested by the promo posters, both worlds were as flat, grey and moribund as each other. Yes, the cityscape was slightly different in one universe – there’s a telecom tower way off in the distance but it’s not enough for an audience, especially one as sophisticated as myself.
The lesson to be learnt here is this: If your story features two mirror universes, they must be distinct enough so the audience can tell which world we’re in.
Same goes for characters. I’m not even sure how many characters from both worlds we met – not just because their personalities were so similar in each world, but because different actors looked the same. Just as the Berlin skies are perma-grey, every character has the same brown hair and wears the same suits, leading my puzzled internal monologue to ask “Is that the same guy as before? Why’s he suddenly got a French accent?”
Television is an audio-visual medium, but the producers make zero use of colour and light or sound to differentiate between the two universes and that is a crime. Make one universe bright and sunny and the other drab and rainy, for god’s sake. Just make it obvious. Use a filter if you have to.
It’s basic visual storytelling. Get that wrong and I’m not interested no matter how fresh your idea is.
I know Germany is fucking bland, I lived there but come on, Justin Marks. This is fiction, not reality.
Counterpart continues on Starz and will produce a second season regardless of what I say!