Starz‘ Counterpart has been canceled—which is bad, because the show is good

Warning: This story contains minor spoilers for S2.

This week, genre TV fans received a bit of bad news. , the JK Simmons-led Starz drama combining sci-fi realism with pseudo-Cold War spy thrills, would not be getting a third season.

Deadline reported Starz’ decision to cancel came in early January. Presumably execs had already read scripts if not viewed the rest of the season, but the timing certainly wasn’t ideal for ‘s chances. After a strong S1 that mixed intriguing world-building, a ticking-clock bit of action (via a mysterious assassin), stunning visuals, and an even more beautiful individual discovery arc executed in the capable hands of Simmons, the start of S2… well, it felt flat.

The table was already set

S1 ended with the show’s world in chaos—diplomatic relations between the two sides reached a new low, and the powers that be shut down border crossing between them accordingly. The Alpha world had learned of a sleeper-cell ploy from factions within the Prime world, but the organization bearing the responsibility to investigate this (the Office of Interchange) hadn’t yet determined who the in-house mole was. Interchange thus brought in an outsider—former FBI agent Naya (Betty Gabriel)—to look into whether things were as simple as they seemed (the sleeper cell agent, called Indigo, had framed a higher-up within Interchange).

Reminder: Getting renewed is hard

If you’re saying, “Wait, what’s , maybe that’s the point. A genre show on a premium, niche cable channel like Starz may have a tough time cutting through today’s peak TV firehose (especially if Starz won’t allow the show a chance to find a larger audience with past seasons on some streaming service). The amount of scripted television has grown 385 percent since 2014, according to FX’s 2019 study on the state of TV. And compared to entities like Amazon or Netflix, where old viewership standards may be tossed out in favor of pure library building for subscribers, Starz may still care about how many folks watch.

may have also faced a higher threshold for renewal from the start: the series started with a rare two-season order, its story is VFX and post-production heavy, and the series shoots on two continents. Even if the show found an average audience for its profile, such an initial financial commitment might have heightened the bar for renewal anyway. The studio behind the show remains hopeful it can find a new home, perhaps on one of the above said streaming services. But if the show lacks a diehard fanbase willing to shout from the rooftops to start, it doesn’t matter how clever or critically applauded it may be—picking it up might not be smart business. (See endless other gone-too-early favorites from to .)

Meanwhile, Howard (Simmons) found himself suddenly stuck in the Prime world as Howard Prime occupied his life in the Alpha. Howard Prime would do his own off-books search into what exactly was happening at Interchange and with Indigo at the behest of his boss Peter Quayle (Harry Lloyd), who discovered in S1 that he was the mole (Clare, played by Nazanin Boniadi). Given the two Howards’ -like switch, they also each had to deal with the personal challenges involved with learning about their other through the eyes of their partner, Emily (Olivia Williams), who holds a very different opinion of Howard depending on which world you’re operating within.

Maybe the premise seems too far-fetched and convoluted when spelled out in text, but virtually of that information was conveyed elegantly in S1. Yet the show’s second season starts with four episodes that barely forward all that narrative momentum. We meet a few new characters like Naya who may or may not be important—others include Yanek (James Cromwell), a social scientist who studies the pre-dimensional split lives of individuals at a Prime world prison-like facility, and Mira (Christiane Paul), the enigmatic leader of Indigo. But by and large these hours seem like table-setting in the grand scheme—a main character receiving new information to sow doubt here, others carrying out some fast-paced action before hitting dead ends there. Perhaps the show leaned too heavily towards conventional espionage drama early on, mistaking dead drops for meaningful development.

But now nine episodes into S2—episode 10, ‘s season and potential series finale, airs Sunday—this doesn’t feel like a wasted or entirely lackluster year (). That’s because this run of episodes takes a dramatic turn during what’s perhaps the best single episode of TV in 2019 so far: “Twin Cities,” a flashback, standalone episode that adds layers of meaning and motivation to every happening before and after it.

Returning to spy-fi roots

If the most interesting things about S1 for you involved the questions this world presented as opposed to the espionage, “Twin Cities” (S2E6) will scratch every itch the show has given. In new-wavey East Berlin pre-Berlin Wall teardown, Yanek is simply a scientific researcher of sorts who feels like his job has run its course and that a start in West Berlin may be better for him (and his family). But one day at work, all his era tech seems to malfunction (in another great visual sequence where computer screens seem to be literally melting onto the desks trying to hold them). The chaos seems earthquake-like, and it leaves a gaping hole in his lab wall.

Soon enough, Yanek comes face-to-face with his other, a chance encounter that essentially births the world of fans came to know. If you have seen and thought the ethics there felt a little too “people-playing-God,” this episode satisfyingly tosses scientific standards even further aside—initially out of pure curiosity, but ultimately out of unflinching commitment (and hubris) to the idea that Yanek’s assembled research group are the only ones who can truly understand the nature of humanity. In the course of the hour, every conflict in suddenly gets a new dimension. Logic now exists behind previously one note terrorist Mira. The nature of present-day Yanek’s work seems less nefarious. And it’s unclear whether the bloody espionage battles between two worlds and intelligence agencies versus Indigo have been driven by circumstance or by the very nature of humanity itself.

In the episodes following “Twin Cities,” leans heavily into existential questions as its espionage plot barrels towards (presumed) culmination. Suddenly, Howard isn’t so sure Howard Prime is a fully-realized and therefore “better” version of himself—his nurture prevailed. At the same time, Howard Prime isn’t as confident in his ability to adopt his meeker other’s lifestyle, instead his nature seems to be what the Alpha world needs in order to survive the sleep-cell plot. The facade of greener grass has faded for everyone.

By re-establishing this philosophical layer of the show (a must for any good sci-fi), regained the balance that made its first season standout in what became a stacked year for new television. Hopefully, fans can eventually look back knowing that equilibrium didn’t arrive too late. But at worst, this last run of episodes has been a thrilling reminder of the highs this show remains capable of when it draws upon its dual-genre influences and allows them to intermingle like two Howards in a ho-hum living room.

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