J.K. Simmons is returning to the small screen for a brand new show that puts a thrilling twist on a tried and true sci-fi concept. Counterpart delivers a parallel world, a diverging timeline, and doppelgangers to complicate everything for everybody involved. The stakes are high, the plot is complex, and the two lead characters are portrayed with nuance by Simmons. It's not everyday that one actor tackles two leading roles on one show, and Simmons more than rises to the occasion.

Counterpart stars J.K. Simmons as two versions of a man by the name of Howard Silk. The first Howard (J.K. Simmons) to appear is a mild-mannered man who has held the same mysterious and unchanging job at spy agency run by the UN for the past 29 years. He wants more out of his job, but his ambitions are complicated by the fact that his wife Emily (Olivia Williams) is in a coma. The other Howard -- the Howard Prime -- enters Howard's life from "the other side," which is a parallel dimension in which the worlds and people are very similar in some ways while wildly different in others. Howard Prime (also J.K. Simmons) is an employee at the same UN agency, just on the other side.

Unlike his doppelganger on our Earth, Howard Prime is a spy high enough up in the agency to travel back and forth between worlds. Howard Prime arrives in Howard's life when an assassin (Sara Serraiocco) from the other side crosses over with a deadly mission, and he wants Howard's help in taking care of the situation. The two Howards are similar in a great many ways, but there are striking differences that set them apart. When Counterpart kicks off, Howard doesn't push boundaries and is entirely dependable. While his friendly demeanor is endearing to those around him, it's not enough to distinguish him at his job. On the other hand, Howard Prime is an uber competent spy unafraid to pull the trigger, cross the lines, and/or swear like a sailor if the situation calls for it.

The show also stars Harry Lloyd of Game of Thrones as Howard's arrogant boss Peter and Ulrich Thomsen as the agency's Director of Operations. You can count on appearances from Jamie Bamber, Richard Schiff, Nazanin Boniadi, Stephen Rea, Nicholas Pinnock, Kenneth Choi. Counterpart pulled out all the stops for the cast.

Created by Justin Marks of The Jungle Book, Counterpart is a tense thriller that combines espionage action adventure with science fiction. Of course, the concept of doppelgangers from parallel Earths/dimensions is nothing new for sci-fi, but Counterpart wisely gives an explanation for the two worlds that doesn't involve a grand universe of worlds and civilizations. There's a reason why there are two Howards rather than three or four or fifteen, and it makes sense without posing too many overly complicated questions about the how and why. The point of Counterpart isn't to examine the universe as a whole; instead, it's an examination of humanity and the conflict between nature and nurture.

Without spoiling too much, I'll say that Howard and Howard Prime have similar origin stories that diverged quite significantly at a later point in their lives. As the story heats up and the Howard of our world is thrown into action for which he is entirely unprepared, Counterpart tackles the question of whether enough pressure could be exerted upon him to turn him into the ruthless Howard Prime. Are the two on the same inevitable path due to the nature in their DNA, or will they remain distinct due to the different lives they've led?

Counterpart tackles questions of psychology and philosophy without bogging down the action, and episodes are intense from the start to finish. J.K. Simmons is the driving force behind the series, and the show almost certainly would have been a flop with a less capable actor playing the two lead roles. Sara Serraiocco was an intriguing surprise as the assassin on a deadly mission, lending depth to a character that could have been one-note. Olivia Williams gets to show off a wide range in performances, and Harry Lloyd is entertaining as his characters gets more and more out of his depth.

Episodes are chock full of details that may or may not come back down the line, so you shouldn't miss a beat when you tune in. Fortunately, Counterpart is so utterly gripping that you won't want to look away. J.K. Simmons' performances as the two Howards may go down as some of the best of his long career.

9 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed rating

Counterpart premieres on Sunday, January 21 at 8 p.m. ET on Starz. For more viewing options now and in the coming months, be sure to check out our midseason TV premiere guide.

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