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 physically dodged the 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.
Two episodes in, and Counterpart had successfully set up an incredibly interesting thematic question; What happened to Howard in each timeline to make him so meek and mild in our world yet such a ruthless, cold motherfucker in the other? It also raises many philosophical ideas surrounding nature or nurture, and destiny versus free will.
As promising as the set-up premise was, as we followed J.K. Simmons between the two mirror universes, Counterpart became more and more confusing. At one point during episode three, I realised that I was only still watching due to Simmon’s acting clout (and the stylish direction and intelligent editing) as he switched between the two versions of Howard Silk.
Then the reason I was so confused and slightly bored struck me. Aside from the mirror world’s citizens being more prone to disease (an afterthought, somewhat lazily only introduced in episode three), there was no difference between the two inter-dimensional locations.
The only real, tangible variable between our world and the mirror-world was Howard Silk.
SO, WHAT’S WRONG WITH COUNTERPART’S UNIVERSES?
Instead of the New Berlin / Old Berlin imagery suggested by these two promo posters, both worlds were as flat, grey and moribund as each other. Yes, the cityscape was slightly different watching one universe – the telecom tower way off in the distance is omnipresent and a couple of modern CGI buildings punctuate the mirror world’s skyline but that’s not nearly enough difference. An audience shouldn’t be asking “hang on, which universe are we in right now?”
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. Television is an audio-visual medium, but Counterpart’s producers have made zero use of colour and light or sound to differentiate between the two universes… and that is a Crime Against TV.
HOW TO FIX COUNTERPART’S UNIVERSES
Make one universe bright and sunny and the other drab and rainy. Ideally, make the world we know grey and boring. Then, make the mirror world bright. It doesn’t have to be The Wizard of Oz’s monochrome Ordinary World and Technicolor Magical World or Tron: Legacy’s excellent 2D to 3D transition, but make it clear.
Learn from the creatives in your marketing department, because their above Counterpart promo posters demonstrate it perfectly. Go and watch J.J. Abrams’ excellent Fringe as an example of perfect mirror-world building. Use differing modes of transport to suggest worlds that have split. Get creative, experiment, have fun! Deploy The Prisoner style Mini Mokes, Zeppelin airships, swear in Chinese like Firefly, hell – use orange filters as Breaking Bad did for New Mexico doubling as bona fide Mexico. Show, show, show!
Sadly, Counterpart’s night scenes contain even fewer differences. Here, one trick could be making one universe loud and fast and exciting, dripping with sexy imagery, neon clubs and Euro techno. Instead of two grey, dystopian-looking worlds, making the Magical World more desirable than the Ordinary World would add another layer to the story – specifically that Howard would want to stay in that more tempting universe and not return to his drab home. Hey, presto – right there is a B-story or three-episode mini-arc that writes itself. You’re welcome.
Worse still, the self-same mistake has been made with the characters. I’m not even sure how many characters from both worlds we’ve been introduced to – not just because they looked and dressed the same in each world, but because their personalities are EXACTLY THE SAME in both worlds. Just as the Berlin skies are perma-grey, every mid-thirties male character in Counterpart has the same brown hair and wears the same suits, leading my puzzled internal monologue to ask “Is that the same dude as before?” Surely each character needs to have “diverged” (just like Howard did) to become a different, diametrically opposed personality. Isn’t that the point?
Compare and contrast to Olivia Dunham and her doppelgänger in Fringe.
No confusion here. We don’t even spend one second asking which Olivia is our Olivia because it’s been made so intuitive. From the red hair, the sexy leather clothes, the attitude problem tattooed across her visage – blonde Olivia is our Olivia and redhead Olivia is from the mirror world. This is how you do it.
In terms of physical geography, Counterpart is well directed and cut; we always know where characters are in relation to each other (particularly impressive due to the two Howards and the necessary superimposition, OTS, reverse and reaction shots, etc.) but what good is that if we don’t know which frigging universe we’re meant to be in?
It’s basic visual storytelling. Get that wrong and you’ll lose your audience’s interest… no matter how fresh your idea is.
Sorry, Counterpart, you lost me at “hello”.
I know Germany is bland, I lived there but come on creator Justin Marks, all you needed to do was hire a competent director to fix this, like Euros Lyn. He could have helped us tell our Euros from our Deutschmarks, Justin.
Counterpart continues on Starz and will produce an equally confusing second season.