If you’re looking for a Sunday night TV series to keep you glued every week until the return of “Game of Thrones” or “Big Little Lies” next year may we suggest “Counterpart”? You might not have heard of the Starz thriller with a slight Sci-Fi twist because, frankly, it hasn’t gotten the Emmy or year-end awards season it deserves. And that’s somewhat shocking since a majority of the cast are often playing two different versions of the same character (and in the same scenes no less).
Yes, we know that’s confusing so a quick refresher without too many season one spoilers.
“Counterpart” centers on Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons), a low-level bureaucrat who believed he was working for a United Nations agency in Berlin for years. Instead, that agency has been a cover for an organization known as the Office of Interchange that is the diplomatic conduit between this world (known as Alpha) and a copy of our world, an alternate dimension, that was discovered in 1987 (known as Prime). Ever since Prime was created, it has diverged from Alpha. This was drastically furthered by an incident on Alpha where a biological airborne disease killed a significant part of that world’s population in the late ’90s. Comparitively, Sept. 11th didn’t occur on Alpha. Prince is still alive and recording music on Alpha. It’s truly diverged into a different timeline for better or for worse. The two worlds, run be a secretive and unseen “Management” on both sides, barter information to help the other solve problems from the minute to the major. And they have both managed to keep it a secret from their respective populations.
The Howard Silk on Prime turns out to be a secret agent/operative (take your pick) whose personality is seemingly less sympathetic and more street smart than the almost pedestrian every-man Silk from “our world.” As the first season progressed, both Silks were forced to work together in an attempt to stop Indigo, a terrorist conspiracy from Prime who believe Alpha is responsible for the disease that decimated their world for years.
Spoilers ahead if you have not watched season one.
In fact, the Silks and the agents on Alpha only partially succeed in stopping Indigo. The resulting terrorist attack finds the doors to the two words closed with each Silk stuck on the “wrong” earth. Season two, which debuted last night, finds Alpha’s management trying to investigate exactly what went wrong by introducing an outsider, Naya (“Get Out’s” Betty Gabriel), to lead the charge. On Prime’s world, Silk’s wife Emily (an utterly fantastic Olivia Williams), is an agent working to uncover more clues about Indigo and Alpha’s Silk, finds himself being interrogated about things he truly has no knowledge of. Eventually, James Cromwell will be introduced as the warden of a Prime facility called Echo where Alpha’s Silk is being held.
Justin Marks, the show’s creator, executive producer and showrunner, jumped on the phone last week to discuss season two without giving very much of the plot away. So, if you’re a fan of the show don’t worry about any major spoilers in the context of our interview.
The Playlist: I know you already been given the green light on a second season before the first season even aired. You had a plan for season two, but was there anything that you learned in the first season that affected that initial story outline?
Justin Marks: I mean, the first season of a TV show is such a learning experience when it comes to, ‘What does the show want to be and how do you listen to it? How do you listen to your cast? How do you listen to your writers? How do you listen to the logistics of how a show is made?’ I think, by and large, what we see with [this] show is what kind of things are really exciting to us as writers. A great example was we really find it creatively stimulating when characters are together on screen [with their] counterparts. People are getting to meet these other versions of themselves. We obviously got to see a lot of it with J.K. last year, and this season, we decided we wanted to do more of it. It was also, just on a logistical level, a very difficult show to produce [the first time around]. I mean, we produced this on two continents, in two worlds and so keeping your head straight with everything we wanted to make some sort of key simplifications or streamlining in the way the story worked in certain cases, especially at the beginning of the season. You see how the first episode takes place entirely on our side, and the second episode takes place entirely on the other side. We really wanted to simplify the geography. It’s been a year for our audience, and while I like to make a show for the audience that I’m a part of, which is an audience that pays really close attention the show, I was sort of feeling like even a year later, maybe we could take a step back and just remind people where everyone is.
How many episodes were you actually shooting at one time?
Well, last season, I would say about 10, but this season, we broke it down into two blocks and that was really largely for logistical reasons of when we pick up the writers room. It’s easier to shoot this show in bulk, [two halves], just because of the nature of our travel back and forth of two continents. But what we wanted to do was really to be able to still write the second half. So we decided let’s just set an arbitrary line in the middle of the season so that we can write the first half as a kind of consolidated piece of storytelling and then take a moment and write the second half as well. But that’s sort of the nature of the game when it comes to TV shows of this scale. We’ve got those big, expensive locations like the outside of the Office of Interchange, which we shoot at Tempelhof airport, and you’re going to inevitably shoot a season’s worth of scenes all on one day or in a couple of days there, just to shave costs. It’s a very complicated show to do, and then on top of that, you’ve got a lot of actors playing two versions of themselves in the past and the present. So, a lot of this season was about what’s a simpler story we can tell that’s still exciting that moves at a good pace and feels like our show? And a lot of that really came in the writer’s room for season two. While we were picked up for two seasons, and we always knew we had a second season to go, I would be lying if I said that we jumped into it saying this is the goalpost that we’re going to set at the end of season two and we knew it from the beginning of season one. It really comes by the process of just sort of working with your writers and listening.
So let’s talk about the main storyline for season 2. Based on the first three episodes it seems like the forward momentum is that there is a sleeper cell of Prime people on the Alpha world who have been there for years. Is that the main thrust for the season or will it come to a fruition at that sort of halfway point you talked about?
No, it is. It is really the whole season. I mean, we build or show in three acts every season. The first three to four episodes are the first act, the last two or three episodes are the third act, and everything in between is act two. Indigo, as evidenced in the first season, has a plan for how they go about what they’re trying to do to our world and what we saw last year was the first step of it and what we see this year is, really in a lot of ways, the climax and escalation of it. I think if anyone has any questions as to what will ultimately be Indigo’s end-game, this season will certainly answer that. Claire [Nazanin Boniadi] stands at the center of that because she is their prized pupil and the cell that she’s operating with, it comes with a lot of baggage because Indigo has no idea that she is compromised that her husband, Peter Quayle [Harry Lloyd], knows about her. So that really is, in a lot of ways, the story for our season.
One of the new characters you introduced this season is Naya Temple, who’s played by the fantastic Betty Gabriel. In the first episode she doesn’t know about the two worlds and she takes the revelation of it suspiciously well. Is there more to her that we’re going to learn about? Does she have secrets?
I think with all of our characters the fun we have [with them] is you pull layers back, and sometimes, it’s not just pulling layers back, it’s just getting to spend more time with them. I think with Temple, that’s certainly the case. But in a world where everyone’s got an angle, we wanted to bring a character into the show whose only angle is the truth. That is really what Temple is after and what she stands for. And she’s coming into sort of a car wreck after the accident and sort of standing around the scene and trying to piece it together and then realizing she’s standing also in the middle of a car wreck in slow motion that’s still unfolding around her. Her acceptance of what’s going on in the first episode when it comes to where her mind went and what she was really wondering about, [was her] faith. It was something that we really wanted to bring into the show in the second season. What does it mean to be a person of faith when you’re confronted with this very outlandish principle of how the world works if there are two universes and what does that mean exactly? Where there two gods to create them? Was there one? And the way she grapples with it this season was one of the most fun things for us to write.
It also seems like at least through the first three episodes, that you’re giving us a little bit more of a peak at the previously unseen members of Management on each world. Will there be more of that in the season? Also, are they basically each world’s Illuminati in a way? I mean, how have they kept this quiet for 20 plus years?
Well, let’s just say many of those questions will be answered this season. Obviously, we tell our story in the present, this season is about the origins of the Office of Interchange. It’s about the origins of Management and, in a lot of ways, how that’s wrapped up in the Indigo storyline because it goes back a very long time. I think what we love doing in this show is you take [the] existential concept of a Berlin Wall that is more of metaphysical construct between two dimensions. We love to explore as much as a Berlin Wall thriller would explore these stories through the lens of human fallibility and how nothing is perfect, and people and institutions and bureaucracies aren’t perfect. And while, yes, Management has very successfully kept it a secret for several decades, that doesn’t mean that the system has been perfect. So, when I hear Illuminati, I feel like that’s the evil that you never see, and you never know it’s there, in a lot of ways, and it’s so controlling and effectively controlling. I think, in the case of Management, they’re a lot less competent in certain ways, and you can see it in the bureaucracy of how the [Office of Interchange] functions, and that’s part of the charm and the fun of doing the show for us. You can sort of see the human cracks as they fail the bigger system.
“Counterpart” season 2 airs on Starz and is available on the Starz app.