Surface review: an unrewarding psychological thriller

It has become commonplace in recent years for TV creators and stars to talk at length about how television shows allow them to explore certain stories and characters more deeply than movies do. The opportunity to spend eight hours playing a character instead of just two has even emerged as one of the biggest reasons why some established movie stars have chosen to flex their muscles on the small screen. That said, if there’s any fact that the past few years of TV have repeatedly reinforced, it’s that not every story needs to be told across eight episodes or multiple seasons.

That’s definitely the case for Surface. The new Veronica West-created Apple TV+ series boasts an ensemble cast comprised of recognizable and talented actors, and it delivers more than its fair share of mesmerizing images across its eight-episode first season. However, Surface also suffers from a problem that has become all too familiar to TV viewers in recent years. The series, which unfolds at a painfully sluggish pace from start to finish, tells a story that feels like it was unnaturally stretched to fill eight episodes of television.

The resulting TV series is a frustrating, often unbearably thin melodrama that pretends to hold more secrets than it actually does. In case that wasn’t bad enough, Surface also refuses to lean into the soapier aspects of its story — rendering it not only narratively unfulfilling but also inexcusably boring.

gugu mbatha-raw lies on a bench in surface.
Apple TV+, 2022

Surface begins, of all places, underwater. Through a series of flashing, disorienting images, viewers are shown glimpses of Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a wealthy San Franciscan socialite, as she plummets into the water and then, much to her horror, finds herself being pulled and thrown by the current toward the propeller of a nearby ferry. Minutes later, Surface makes it clear that its opening underwater sequence is not just a memory, but one of the only ones that Sophie has left.

That’s because Surface picks up with Sophie when she is still recovering from an accident that resulted in her losing most of her memories. In the months since the accident, Sophie has been led to believe that the event in question involved her jumping from the side of a ferry into San Francisco Bay with the aim of ending her own life. However, Sophie believes that may not be what actually happened, and it doesn’t take long for cracks in her seemingly perfect life to begin to show.

Sophie’s inability to move on from her forgotten past leads her to question not only the state of her own life but also the nature of her strained marriage to James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, far from The Haunting of Bly Manor‘s horror trappings), a loving but obsessively clingy venture capitalist. When an undercover cop named Baden (Stephan James) subsequently tracks her down and tells her not to trust everything she’s been told about her accident, Sophie begins to suspect that James may have had something to do with her traumatic fall.

stephan james and gugu mbatha-raw walk down an alley together in surface.
Apple TV+, 2022

Surface’s premise opens the door for it to go in a number of different, potentially lurid directions, but the series doesn’t choose to venture down any of those roads. Instead, the discoveries that Sophie makes about her life over the course of the show’s eight episodes are all surprisingly tame and dull. That fact, combined with how obvious many of the show’s twists are, just makes the time that Surface takes to reveal many of them feel that much more wasted and prolonged.

While Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, and Stephan James have shown themselves to be capable and compelling performers in a number of their previous TV and film projects as well, all three actors are largely wasted in Surface. Mbatha-Raw is an exceptionally warm and expressive performer, one who is more than capable of navigating difficult emotional problems on-screen, but Sophie’s journey in Surface is surprisingly one-note. As a result, Mbatha-Raw is forced to remain in a state of near-constant confusion over the course of the series’ eight episodes.

The show’s insistence on keeping its mysteries held up its sleeves for as long as possible similarly leaves James and Jackson-Cohen’s performances feeling frustratingly incomplete for most of Surface’s first season. By unnecessarily drawing out many of its mysteries, Surface also robs Sophie, James, and Baden of any authenticity that they might have had. None of them act in a way that real-life adults might, and their behavior throughout the show is so needlessly contrived and toxic that it eventually becomes impossible to care about any of them.

gugu mbatha-raw walks along a pier in surface.
Apple TV+, 2022

Surface’s inability to create any three-dimensional, compelling characters or deliver a single legitimately surprising twist leaves it feeling like an indefensibly lifeless and dull psychological thriller. Even calling it that feels a bit dishonest, considering just how rarely Surface manages to successfully build tension or dread, let alone a single thrilling set piece.

The show’s rich, warm color palette does make it pleasant to look at, and, to its credit, Surface frequently makes the most out of its picturesque San Francisco setting by going out of its way to highlight the city’s urban streets and steep hills. However, even the partially unfocused visual style that director Sam Miller brings to many of Surface’s episodes begins to feel tired and unnecessary after the series’ first few installments.

At first, Miller’s decision to leave the outer edges of many of Surface’s frames blurry and undefined feels like a compelling visual reflection of the fractured mental state that Mbatha-Raw’s Sophie is struggling with at the start of the show. That stylistic choice quickly begins to lose its power, though, once it becomes clear that Surface isn’t ever going to embrace the full potential of its story. The same, unfortunately, can be said for nearly every aspect of Surface, which sinks so far into forgettable territory that it’s hard to imagine anyone remembering it fondly enough to warrant it returning for another season.

The first three episodes of Surface premiere Friday, July 29 on Apple TV+.

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