Raise your hands, who reading this article has seen Counterpart, the recently cancelled science-fiction drama starring JK Simmons? Just as suspected… that’s not very many hands.
Honestly, had you ever even really *heard* of it in the first place? Counterpart, created by Justin Marks, has spent over a year across two seasons being critically feted by writers yet largely being ignored by audiences. Most people who *have* found Counterpart have seemed to embrace its ‘Fringe for grown ups’ narrative; Simmons in the dual role of a UN diplomat, Howard Silk, with two very different personas across adjacent parallel universes in danger of edging into conflict with each other. Counterpart is stylish, measured, dramatic and filled with great performances… so why, two seasons in, has it been dumped?
As is often the way with American networks, it all comes down to ratings. Counterpart aired on Starz with just a network average share of 500,000 viewers across its second season. When Netflix are boasting about Gillian Anderson-starring teen dramedy Sex Education netting 40 *million* viewers, half a million is chump change. Counterpart is filmed in Europe often on location, with actors such as Simmons, Olivia Williams, Harry Lloyd etc… who don’t come dirt cheap, and ultimately the sums simply don’t add up. Not enough people watched to justify the expense. So goes the story of hundreds of other shows a core fan base loved but ended unresolved and sometimes ignominiously.
The difference now is that something like this just should not happen to a show as critically applauded as Counterpart. Not in the streaming era of peak TV.
Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke, and continues to break the mould.
George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, ‘A Game of Thrones’, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.
Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.
Have you been unsettled lately watching The Handmaid’s Tale? Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, a set text certainly in the UK for English A-Level students which has never entirely left the academic consciousness, is now being talked about everywhere. Why? Because it’s scaring people half to death.
Not many people may be aware that it had been adapted before Hulu turned it into a hit TV series. In 1990, German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff—one of the New German Cinema wave of the late 60’s and early 70’s which included better known luminaries such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog—directed a cinematic version with the late Natasha Richardson in the central role of ‘Offred’, the titular handmaiden forced into indentured sexual slavery in the largely infertile Christian hegemony of Gilead, formerly the United States. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay, no less, but later worked to have his name removed from it.
What matters is that very few people remember The Handmaid’s Tale has ever been committed to celluloid before Bruce Miller’s adaptation for Hulu, which has very quickly gained critical and commercial traction on both sides of the Pond. If it’s not quite water-cooler television on the level of Game of Thrones, for example, then it’s gaining viewers and significant commentary amongst people as it airs. In the US, Season One ended in June and in the UK, it’s about to end next week. The response has been the same: a deep sense of unease.