This is a terrific weekend for alternate realitiesDecember 7, 2018
There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.
What to watch
2013’s The Double, a loose movie adaptation of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novella, directed by The IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade and co-written by Ayoade and Avi Korine. Jesse Eisenberg stars as meek office drone Simon James, who spends his days being undervalued by his boss (Wallace Shawn) and pining for his co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska). Then one day, his doppelgänger, James Simon, gets hired at his company and begins asserting himself, making demands, and generally doing everything Simon always secretly wanted to. The two start as allies, until Simon James realizes he’ll finally have to stand up for himself before James Simon steals his life.
Why watch now?
Because this is a weekend full of doppelgängers and alternative universes. On Sunday night, Counterpart returns for a second season on Starz, and the “Elseworlds” crossover starts on The CW.
The concept of a “parallel self” has been a staple of science fiction and highbrow literature alike since at least the 1800s. Countless books and movies over the past two centuries have imagined different worlds or variations within our own where someone just like us is living another life. One of the most recent and critically praised examples is the moody Starz drama Counterpart, starring J.K. Simmons as Howard Silk, a undistinguished government agent who learns about the existence of an alternate Earth when the version of himself from the other side — a more confident, powerful Howard — crosses over as part of an operation to thwart a trans-dimensional conspiracy. A riff on Cold War spy thrillers, peppered with ruminations on a late-middle-aged man’s many regrets, Counterpart is one of the more somber examples of the doppelgänger plot.
For a more playful spin on the multiverse concept, this weekend also sees the return of the CW’s annual Arrowverse crossover, with The Flash on Sunday, Arrow on Monday, and Supergirl on Tuesday. All three shows will be telling one long story about the reality-bending repercussions when “Earth-90” dies, prompting a last-ditch rescue effort that inadvertently leads to Barry “The Flash” Allen and Oliver “Green Arrow” Queen switching lives. Borrowing heavily from elements of the classic 1980s DC Comics storyline “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” the Elseworlds three-parter will both pay homage to and gently spoof the comics industry’s love of reboots, retcons, and imaginary tales, while giving two superheroes a chance to experience what it’s like to be somebody else.
Ayoade’s The Double has its puckish side, too — or at least it’s more comedic than Dostoyevsky’s original version. First published in 1846 and then revised in 1866, the novella tells the story of a weak bureaucrat who is driven to madness by the living embodiment of everything he’s not. The film is pitched as more of a black comedy that’s satirizing a business culture where the people who do all of the work are often held in less esteem than the employees who know how to schmooze. Like so many other doppelgänger and alt-universe stories, the film The Double also functions as a fantasy, as one lonely guy gets to see how much happier he could be if he just behaved more selfishly.
Who it’s for
Fans of cinematic expressionism and literary absurdism.
Movie buffs will recognize right away that Ayoade was heavily influenced by Orson Welles’ The Trial and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil as well as just about every other exaggerated film and TV critique of dehumanizing office work, from The Apartment to Office Space to Ayoade’s own cult sitcom The IT Crowd. The deep shadows, the mean co-workers, and the general grubbiness of Simon James’ surroundings are all meant to make the corporate world look grimly dystopian. It’s a simultaneously nightmarish and funny vision.
The heart of the film, though, is in Eisenberg’s superb dual performance, as the obnoxious (but effective) James Simon and the sweet (but ignored) Simon James. The Double’s big joke is that even though these two look exactly alike, no one else recognizes the similarity because their personalities define who they are, not their faces. “What is so unique about him?” Simon James asks Hannah, who has a crush on James Simon. The urgency of his question cuts to the core of what these stories are really pondering: what if there’s somebody out there who’s essentially us, but doing it much, much better?
Where to see it
Hulu. Or, in keeping with the “double” theme, Netflix subscribers can watch an eerily similar 2013 paranoid thriller, Enemy, directed by Arrival’s Denis Villeneuve (from a different book called The Double, written by José Saramago), and starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a nebbishy academic who becomes obsessed with a small-time actor who looks exactly like him.