The temptation of writing about culture is always to find something to pan. Critical reviews flow easily from the fingertips, while applause involves the hard labor of finding 16 synonyms for “good.” But I ate my Wheaties this morning, and I’m looking for a challenge. So let’s talk about good shows — great shows, even. Shows that more people should be watching. People like you.
It’s a Cold War thriller, only not about the Cold War. “Counterpart” is set in a universe that twinned at some point, yielding two timelines that eye each other uneasily across their single point of contact: a Checkpoint Charlie that happens to be in a Berlin basement.
There is much to love about this show, beginning with the scripting. The popularity of science fiction shows has far outstripped the supply of writers who can juggle three complex tasks at once: building the world, exploring that world’s implications and delivering a satisfying plot. Somehow, “Counterpart” manages to flesh out a fascinating world without resorting to a stock Basil Exposition character who delivers stodgy monologues about Science. It explores one of the most obvious ramifications of a split universe: the existence of twins who could, in theory, take each other’s place, and what a spy network could do with that ability. And here’s the really special thing: It also has a plot. A competent plot. One to which the science fiction aspects are central and, yet, do not bog down the action with pointless philosophizing or internal contradictions.
That’s not even the best part. The best part is J.K. Simmons, who is astounding. Many other actors have played twins, but none I am aware of has managed to so fully characterize two different people without ever resorting to flamboyant mannerism. You can always tell which of the two characters you’re looking at in a scene, even before Simmons moves or opens his mouth. This one should go straight to the top of your queue.
I have a special reason for loving this one: My normal job is writing about economics, and the writers of this show managed not only to dramatize the fascinating process of laundering money, but also to do it in a basically accurate fashion. On top of that, Jason Bateman’s monologue explaining what money laundering is and why it’s necessary is the finest explanation of its kind I’ve ever seen on screen. Better than that, his monologue is actually a dramatic moment upon which the plot hinges, rather than the sort of exposition that makes a viewer’s eyes glaze over.
And then, of course, there’s Bateman. Who is terrific. And the rest of the cast. Which is also terrific. And the plotting, which is brisk and full of unexpected twists. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in money laundering, or Bateman, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.
Another show with great scripts and a fine cast. (You may be sensing a theme here). This is high-finance as revenge-drama. The first three seasons portray a long-running cat-and-mouse game between hedge-fund titan Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis, and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti. But the showrunners haven’t given into the temptation to make Axelrod the bad guy and Rhoades the hero. Instead, we have twin protagonists — both badly flawed, but also deeply appealing.
The cast is terrific, the writing reminiscent of a less-manic Aaron Sorkin, and thanks to a different Sorkin (Andrew Ross, longtime finance reporter for the New York Times, and no relation to the creator of “The West Wing”), “Billions” is even a reasonably realistic portrayal of both finance and securities law. I suspect it isn’t getting the audience it deserves because people think finance is dull, but trust me, in the hands of this team, it never is.
I keep running into people who don’t watch “Patriot,” though they clearly should. I blame poor marketing. Neither the show’s icon nor its description in Amazon’s browser conveys the quirky charms of this show, a wag-the-dog plot centered on a reluctant spy who would really rather be playing folk guitar. But no, that doesn’t convey it either. I’m afraid I’ll just have to urge you to watch a few episodes and see for yourself why those of us who have seen “Patriot” love it so much.
“American Gods” (Starz)
Well, hello, Starz — it’s not just for “Outlander” anymore! “American Gods” is the least plot-heavy of all the shows I’ve recommended, but it’s so visually interesting that you won’t care. The core premise of Neil Gaiman’s bestselling book — ancient gods battling it out with new ones across the American landscape — obviously offers a lot of opportunities for neat tricks. But the caliber of the performances elevates this far above CGI spectacle or amateur magic hour.
After gushing so much, I rather feel as if I should turn in my keys to the culture blog. But there you are: Everyone has to like something. I like these shows. I hope you will, too.