CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:
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GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia, and I'm joined today, from his makeshift studio in LA - Paddy Hirsch. Paddy.
PADDY HIRSCH, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.
HIRSCH: Well, as you know, I'm usually the editor of THE INDICATOR, but Stacey's out today and, you know - you know how it is - in case of emergency, break glass.
GARCIA: That's right. You're the port in the storm, Paddy.
HIRSCH: Any port in a storm.
GARCIA: The port in the storm (laughter).
HIRSCH: Any port in a storm. Any port in a storm. Well, as cities and states around the country, around the world in fact, begin to think about reopening their economies, everyone is wondering what the world is going to look like post-pandemic, right? But there are some people out there who've been thinking for a long time about this. They're writers and filmmakers, who up till now have been working in a fictional world, you know, writing books and making movies and TV shows. And one of these is Justin Marks, the creator of a TV show called "Counterpart."
GARCIA: Yeah. And without giving too much away here - no spoilers - "Counterpart" is a dystopian spy thriller set in Berlin. And the time is the present. But unbeknownst to most of the world, there's actually a parallel world to our world, and it was created in 1987 when an East German scientific experiment went wrong.
HIRSCH: Yeah, and these two worlds look pretty much the same on the surface. But life in each one is wildly different. In one world, they live just as we live or used to live before coronavirus. But life in this parallel world is lived in the shadow of a deadly flu outbreak in 1995.
GARCIA: Yeah, "Counterpart" was written several years ago, long before a lot of us had to become familiar with this idea of social distancing. But the post-pandemic world that's created in "Counterpart" actually looks disturbingly familiar to the world that many of us are living in now today.
HIRSCH: Yeah. For example, at one point, the protagonist, played by the actor J.K. Simmons, has crossed to the other world and is walking around a shopping mall.
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J K SIMMONS: (As Howard Silk) There's nobody shopping. Round here, ever since I got to this side, public places - inside, outside - the Whole city seem so vacant.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He really didn't tell you anything about our world, did he? There was a flu epidemic in the early 90s. It was a fever that escalated quickly. Within four years, 7% of the population was wiped out.
SIMMONS: (As Howard) Seven percent of your world's population?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yeah.
SIMMONS: (As Howard) God, that's, like, half a billion people.
HIRSCH: After the break, Justin Marks talks to us about how he created this post-pandemic world for television and how it feels to see so much of what he speculated about coming true today.
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HIRSCH: Justin Marks, creator of "Counterpoint," talk to me a bit about the pandemic background in this, this flu that devastated such a large proportion of the population of the other world that you created. Where did the inspiration for that come from?
JUSTIN MARKS: We wanted a difference between our world and the other side, as we called it. And we liked the idea of a pandemic because it spoke to a way that the world could be that defined a certain mood, I think. You know, the world that you see in "Counterpart" is over a decade post-pandemic and has gone through this process of rebuilding. But you could see these signposts of past trauma. The streets were more empty. There was a sense of melancholy. And there was honestly a sense of communitarian spirit that we thought felt like a really interesting world to explore. So I think that's where it ultimately started out.
HIRSCH: How did you do your research in order to find out what that world might look like?
MARKS: A lot of it came from looking at past viruses that had spread, especially in our modern history. And we noticed that the emphasis on social distancing was present always, especially in the years following some of these flus that would spread. No one is shaking hands. People are much more aware of each other's space. Movie theaters are less populated and you don't just see a prevalence of face masks out on the street, but you even saw fashions being developed off of that physical shielding. And our costume designer, she worked very hard to develop a system of how people might dress where the face mask was incorporated into our day-to-day outfit because it was just a reality of our everyday experience.
HIRSCH: Is there any one scene in the show that stands out for you just now?
MARKS: The PSA that we shot in a playground in Berlin for - spring is in the air, and you're going to want to be outside more. And remember - there's never been a more important time to be aware of your symptoms and to - you know, and then, of course, it's this lovely slow motion, children playing in a playground ad that begins to also then devolve into what, for us at the time, was almost satire that we were trying to convey. And if you have symptoms and don't report them, you can be liable for a fine. And if you know someone who has symptoms, it's your civic duty to report them for the evening.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, non-English language spoken).
MARKS: You know, I think we were playing that as a joke in some way, a bit of a kind of faux totalitarian humor, if you will. I think the me now looks at that, and I've - first of all, I don't think it's very funny, you know, and I also don't think it's very absurd.
HIRSCH: As I recall it, it's these kids playing, and one of them starts coughing, and everybody just sort of pulls back from him and withdraws from him and treats this child, you know, like a pariah in a way. It was - and it's quite horrifying, actually, to think about it. I mean, do you think that we may be headed that way, actually?
MARKS: No, because I think there is something missing from that that, if we were making this show again, I would have done, which is the way those other kids drew back from the one coughing child. I think the way that ad would have been done in a world that did emerge from a pandemic is you would have seen that sick child being welcomed into the embrace of a health care system that could accommodate him.
HIRSCH: Are there any moments about this pandemic that we're going through right now that have surprised you, given what you'd sort of thoughts about and what your process had been in creating "Counterpart?"
MARKS: A lot of what we thought the characters had gone through was akin to a war zone experience, where society really, essentially collapsed for some time, and people had to just protect themselves and live by themselves and, you know, like we would might assume a society is during a war. Certainly, you know, reading about London during the Blitz, you know, it spoke to that, and I thought about that a lot. But what I've seen as we go through this and, you know, has been, maybe in a good way, somewhat refreshing to see that I think society has never been stronger.
HIRSCH: Do you have a view on where you think we're headed right now, based on where we are today?
MARKS: I think the terrifying sense of just unilateral affect that this pandemic has had on us should be a wake-up call to say that we belong in a world community, that when our neighbors are less healthy, when our neighbors are less safe, that makes us less healthy and less safe. And, you know, certainly, the world in "Counterpart" was driven towards that. We spent some time in the show in hospitals, and you saw the way hospitals on the other side had - were built towards what, at the time, we called an accordion possibility, where they could expand rapidly if there were some kind of a crisis needed.
And I think that, you know, we run our hospitals at such capacity in the United States. I hope that now our eyes have been opened, whether it's a pandemic or another crisis of another kind, that we need to take care of ourselves and take care of each other sufficiently.
HIRSCH: Justin Marks is a writer and showrunner. He's the creator of the television series "Counterpoint," a production of the Starz network that's now available on Amazon Prime. This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Camille Petersen. It's a production of NPR.
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