Plot: Sophie is a woman who has suffered a traumatic head injury that has left her with extreme memory loss, believed to be a result of a suicide attempt. As Sophie embarks on a quest to put the pieces of her life back together with the help of her husband and friends, she begins to question whether or not the truth she is told is in fact the truth she has lived. Through twists and turns and an unexpected love triangle, this sexy, elevated thriller asks: What if you woke up one day and didn’t know your own secrets?
Review: Memory is a tricky thing. Films and television series have often played with the tropes of amnesia, relegating it to a cliche associated with soap opera storylines. Some projects, like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, have used the idea of memory loss to deliver a complex jigsaw puzzle that the viewer assembles at the same time as the protagonist on screen. AppleTV+ series Surface attempts to do something similar albeit more linearly than Nolan’s film. Led by an excellent performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Surface plays in the same sandbox as The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl but stretches the concept across eight hour-long episodes. The result is a decent story that could have been condensed into a feature film.
Billed as a psychological thriller, Surface is rarely thrilling. Deeply rooted in themes of identity and trust, this series drops multiple red herrings from episode to episode to throw the viewer off as to who or what led to the suicide attempt that triggered Sophie Ellis (Gug Mbatha-Raw) to suffer long-term memory loss. Picking up months after the incident, we follow Sophie as she tries to reenter her life of privilege and wealth alongside her investment banker husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). When her former lover (Stephan James) comes back into her life, Sophie begins to question if she genuinely tried to kill herself or if she was murdered. Was it her husband or her best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor)? Was the reason due to her affair or the result of her mental illness? All of these questions and more are asked during the series’ run but not all of them are answered.
Over the series, Surface presents multiple suspects and explanations for who could have pushed Sophie into the San Francisco Bay if she didn’t really just jump. There are sessions with her therapist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and unconventional treatments involving psychedelic drugs that posit that maybe there is more to this story than a traditional mystery. For several episodes, I began to question if Surface was going to result in a story about past lives or dual personalities rather than a straightforward mystery involving infidelity and financial crimes. Each chapter unfolds in a slow-paced manner that often feels like it repeats the same inane sequences over and over with multiple characters even repeating similar lines of dialogue that begin to make the story feel repetitive just to fill out a full season’s worth of episodes.
The first episode of the series presents a beautifully shot tale with some intriguing threads that I expected to compound and become more intense as each chapter moved on. But, by the fourth episode, I no longer felt that the series had any momentum but was instead treading water as it led to the true reveal in the finale. But, when I reached the eighth episode, I finished the series feeling underwhelmed and asking myself what the point of this entire series was for. This is a shame as each performance is quite good, especially Mbatha-Raw who has proven herself time and again to be an excellent actress. From Belle, A Wrinkle in Time, Motherless Brooklyn, Loki and The Morning Show, Mbatha-Raw exudes a balance of confidence and delicacy in this series that contrasts with memories of her past self. The duality of her roles here is not quite the same as playing two different characters, but she makes for a very compelling lead character. At the same time, Oliver Jackson-Cohen does good work as her husband who may or may not be a scumbag. Blending his roles in The Invisible Man and The Haunting of Bly Manor, Jackson-Cohen is adept at playing likably unlikable characters.
Produced by Reese Witherspoon and created by Veronica West (High Fidelity), Surface also has solid supporting turns from Stephan James and Francois Arnaud. Surface also benefits from the deep pockets of Apple Studios who ensure that there are several shots each episode of iPhones and people trying to log in to MacBooks unsuccessfully. But, as the season plods forward, the deliberate pacing and false leads begin to pile up and the mystery at the center of this story becomes less and less interesting. Any number of the theories I had about what the ending of this series would be ended up being far more intriguing than what actually happens which leaves the show with an unnecessary cliffhanger that could either be the end of the show or lead to another dull season of these characters doing the same things again and again.
Surface looks great and boasts some competent performances surrounding a great turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but there really isn’t much else simmering underneath the superficial top layer of this story. This set-up presents a great opportunity to tell an engaging mystery but instead thinks it is far smarter than it actually is. You could easily watch the first two episodes and then skip to the end and be able to piece together what is going on and that is a sign of far too much filler material to get this story to a full-length season. Surface offers minimal tension and virtually nothing to make coming back for a second season enticing in the least. Beyond attractive actors looking good, there is not much else here worth remembering.
Surface premieres on AppleTV+ on July 29th.