It’s so disheartening to see talented performers forced to deliver mediocre dialogue in doomed projects like “Surface.” Gugu Mbatha-Raw can be such a charismatic performer but she gets completely swallowed up by the bad writing on the latest Apple TV+ thriller, which takes maybe 100 minutes worth of plot and stretches it far past its breaking point to produce eight episodes of television. This kind of project is typically built on a foundation of shocking twists and turns (think “Clickbait” or “The Undoing”) but “Surface” can’t even bother itself to provide that kind of lurid escapism. I kept longing for something crazy to happen. Instead, because this was clearly never broken out in a way that could support this much runtime, characters spin their wheels when they’re not betraying the little that we know about them. Instead of character development, creator Veronica West and her team (including producer Reese Witherspoon) are content to drag things out in a way that feels repetitive and shallow. These aren’t characters, they’re pawns on a board, and that would be fine with a few cheap thrills, but the game being played here is just too dull.
Sophie (Mbatha-Raw) has recently survived a suicide attempt in San Francisco, where she lives with her investment manager husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of “The Invisible Man,” which means he automatically carries a distrust factor purely through casting). Months after the suicide attempt, Sophie is suffering from amnesia—the kind that comes and goes in a way that reveals just enough to push a thriller along the tracks—and working with a therapist (a tragically wasted Marianne Jean-Baptiste) to figure out why she would attempt to end her life (and starting to suspect that maybe someone tried to kill her instead). Of course, it’s an Apple TV+ thriller so there’s way more to Sophie’s life than first appears, and her suspicions grow significantly when an undercover cop named Baden (Stephan James) warns her that she can’t trust James, and she discovers that she has a few secrets of her own. Like a thriller script Mad Libs, both halves of the troubled couple need a BFF, of course, and Ari Graynor plays Caroline (Sophie’s) while François Arnaud plays Harrison (James’). Both know more than they’re letting on about Sophie’s past. Because of course they do.
Following in a long line of thrillers that have been coming off the TV content-producing machine at a faster clip since “Big Little Lies” won all the awards, “Surface” seems to have all the right ingredients for summer escapist TV. It has a gorgeous cast of more-than-capable performers, some of whom can be phenomenal in the right material. I kept thinking of how much depth Mbatha-Raw added to “The Morning Show” or how underranated James was in “If Beale Street Could Talk” and even the emotional rawness of Jackson-Cohen in “The Haunting of Hill House.” How could mixing these three in a sexy thriller be so lackluster?
The main problem is that everyone here is forced into inconsistent characters by the nature of the script. Our protagonist doesn’t remember a lot of the important details about her relationships, which sets up a structure in which we can’t trust and don't really know anyone. The actors playing James, Baden, Caroline, and Harrison shift based on her uncovering the truth in a way that makes all of them feel thin. But even the center here is hollow because Mbatha-Raw hasn’t been given anything to play but confusion, pushed around by scripts that force her to constantly shift allegiances and even what the actress knows about her character. Playing someone with amnesia is tough enough, but Sophie is given so little agency here that the show falls apart around her. At least until the finale, she’s really just getting bounced from dull twist to dull twist like a rock skipping across, sorry, the surface.
Again, this would all be fine for a thriller if “Surface” was capable of leaning into its ridiculous, logic-defying plot and juicing it up with a little tension or eroticism—both of which are completely lacking here. Perhaps its greatest offence is that “Surface” is a thriller with no thrills. It all culminates in a finale that’s baffling with plot and character in a way that demands a second season, although I hesitate to suggest these talented actors don’t move on to something more worthy of their talents.
Whole season screened for review.