Ah, the tried and true character actor — really, the Hollywood equivalent of the “never a bride, always a bridesmaid” idiom. Character actors are more often than not the best thing in whatever they are featured in, with their ability to take the simplest of roles and turn them into pure gold giving them the much-valued status of “Hey, it’s THAT guy!” I can write you entire lists of great characters actors and actresses, but I have to imagine that one of the men at the very top woud have to be J.K. Simmons.
The dude has been in over 180 movies and (mostly) TV shows, and acts the crap out of pretty much every single one of them. From supporting roles in procedurals like Law and Order or The Closer, to comedic bit characters in films like I Love You, Man or Extract, to even voice-over work in Portal 2 and (ESPECIALLY) The Legend of Korra, there has never been a time in a movie or TV show where I was like “Wow, there is way too much J.K. Simmons in this.” In fact, the sentiment is almost entirely the opposite.
Of course, his career got a huge bump up in status with the release of 2015’s Whiplash, in which Simmons won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his phenomenal work as teacher/monster Fletcher. And, like all Oscar winners, it was only a matter of time until such an award would result in bigger roles for Simmons to dive into. Of course, unlike other actors like Eddie Redmayne or Jennifer Lawrence or Benedict Cumberbatch, love from the Oscars couldn’t result in leading roles in huge superhero franchises. Not only because he already made his mark on that particular genre by giving the best performance in a superhero movie ever with J.J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man trilogy (that’s only slightly hyperbolic), but just because of who Simmons was. He’s a sixty-two-year-old man, after all — despite how surprisingly swole he is, there simply isn’t a lot of leading franchise roles in the movie business for a man of his age. Sure, he would still be given stuff like Commissioner Gordon in Justice League and the like, but he could never realistically be the choice to play the new Batman (although, wow, he would probably be really awesome as old Bruce in a Batman Beyond movie…wait, what was I talking about again?) No, despite how amazing an actor he is and his new Oscar-winning profile, it seemed like SImmons just aged out of the opportunity to be a big leading man in Hollywood films.
…But, thankfully, television exists! With the brunt of new programming assaulting our eyeballs, and the wide variety of different things finding success in the realm, surely a man of Simmons talent and pedigree can earn himself a much deserved leading role, right? That’s where Starz new sci-fi series Counterpart comes in. Finally, it’s a chance for Simmons to truly stretch his leading man status, outside of a larger ensemble (Oz) or simply being the laughing stock in a forgettable family sitcom (let’s try to pretend Growing Up Fisher never existed, shall we?) Counterpart is a big, ambitious, creative science fiction series, and offers Simmons his first real chance at a dramatic, centerpiece role. And, from the looks of the show’s first episode, Simmons is very much making the best of it.
It certainly helps that the series around him, though, is off to a pretty great start. I knew almost nothing about Counterpart going in — I only knew that Simmons was the lead, that he was playing a dual-role in it, and that it was a spy thriller with sci-fi elements. And, to be honest, even after watching the first episode, I feel like I only know a tad bit more than that.
But though that might feel like a con for some pilots, I actually think the flow of information benefits Counterpart. Right off the bat you understand this is a big world with some heady science fiction going on — but the episode wisely doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Like the best science fiction, it slowly introduces you to the universe, letting you know only the basics of what is going on, primarily through action and world building rather than scene after scene of boring exposition. What exposition is given is delivered rather matter-of-factly, and treats its subject material as a much more banal thing than it actually is. I’m trying to stay rather vague here, because I think one of the joys of the show’s first episode is trying to piece together the universe, and where the series seems to be heading. But, just to offer a little tease, let’s just say I felt a lot of similarities between it and the first season of Orphan Black, crossed with later seasons of Fringe. Which, if you know anything about my taste, is fine company to be in indeed.
But though the premiere is good, the real big ticket item here is indeed Simmons, who already is doing stellar work in both performances he is given. While watching the premiere (simply entitled “The Crossing”), I was struck with how absolutely perfect a role (roles?) it was for J.K. Simmons. It gives the actor the chance to utilize both the nice guy, sympathetic side of his acting range (seen in things like Juno and the aforementioned The Legend of Korra), AND his firecracker, intense side featured in…well, pretty much everything else. Simmons was certainly typecast as the intense, angry guy after Oz, and though you can’t blame people for giving him roles like that (he’s VERY GOOD in them), it’s nice to see him get the chance to flex his range in a literal line-to-line span.
And you know what else is nice, and in fact, rather refreshing? To just see someone of J.K. Simmons’ type lead a genre show like this in the first place. Even in television, it’s extremely rare for a sixty-two-year-old man to get the chance to lead a sci-fi series. No, the part would likely go to someone in their thirties or (at the very “extreme” range) forties. But as good as someone like Michael Fassbender or Jake Gyllenhaal would do with a part like this, Simmons brings something lived-in and experienced to the proceedings. And considering the main theme of the show (essentially, how the decisions and actions we make in life affect us as people), casting an older actor certainly has its benefits…especially when said actor is J.K. Simmons. After all, Counterpart so far is, more than anything, a starring vehicle for Simmons. And he owns the role in the way that only a character actor with three decades of acting experience can.
As a series, it’s fair to say Counterpart still very much has room to grow. I’m not really sold on any of its supporting characters quite yet and, by design, I feel like we’ve barely touched the surface on what the series will even really be about (although what is teased does have me quite excited for what it could accomplish.) And though its bureaucratic, rather plain tone fits the universe thus far, I do hope the series acquires a more interesting aesthetic and visual palette in the episodes ahead. In a world where we get as visually interesting and unique science fiction as Mr. Robot or Westworld, something as workman-like and sparse as Counterpart can’t help but feel a tad bit blase.
But, still — this is barely the first episode, and I’m already super intrigued to see where the series will go from here. And for a pilot, that’s pretty much the entire battle. There’s a lot of cool sci-fi concepts and intriguing thematic questions already at play in Counterpart, and I can only hope the story will unfold in a way that drives those themes and concepts to new heights. And even if Counterpart doesn’t turn out to be my cup of tea, just to see J.K. Simmons finally get those juicy leading man parts in his mouth makes the creation of the series entirely worth it.
Counterpart airs Sundays at 8 PM EST on Starz. Already it’s not getting nearly the attention it deserves, so I encourage you all to give it a try. If you’re into detail-sparse, theme-driven science fiction, you’ll probably dig it. And if you’re into J.K. Simmons (a.k.a are a human being with two ears and a heart), even more so.
Also published on Medium.