‘Surface’ Review: Apple TV+ Series Is a Jumble of Shallow Thrills

Gugu Mbatha-Raw leads the psychological thriller as a woman attempting to regain her memories

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Surface" (Apple TV+)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Surface" (Apple TV+)

From Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” to the Bourne franchise and “Memento,” the idea of an amnesiac struggling to figure out their own identity while coping with a dangerous present can be a compelling plot device. In these cases, the “who am I” question isn’t that of the idle philosophy student but a matter of life and death, of true love versus gaslighting. With the new Apple TV+ series “Surface,” that memory-challenged person is Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who drives the plot forward to its inevitable revelatory climax – or a cliffhanger promising a sequel that may never arrive.

Sophie awakens from a coma, dazed and confused, into the arms of her very tall, handsome and apparently shifty investment banker husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He may or may not have pushed her off the ferry, although most adults in the room agree that she jumped in a fit of suicidal despair. James may or may not be sleeping with her best friend Caroline (Ari Gaynor). And it’s possible that Sophie was unfaithful with street-smart Baden (“Selma’s” Stephan James), an undercover narc who has his own secrets. Whoever Sophie was before the “accident,” it’s immediately clear that she had incredibly bad taste in friends.

Produced by Veronica West and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, the thriller resembles a one-character thread pulled from a female-driven ensemble like the overstuffed and engrossing “Big Little Lies.” Sophie might only remember little slivers of her past, but her present is pretty damn cushy: she and James own a posh multi-million dollar San Francisco Victorian; her walk-in wardrobe brims with fabulous gowns and body hugging running gear; and they move with the big money, artsy, charity crowd. She is never less than drop-dead gorgeous, even when her face pales with fear and confusion. A jogger, she runs and runs and runs, a picture of physical health if not mental clarity. 

So what about that mental health? Therapist Hanna, played by the terrific British actress Marianne Sean-Baptiste in serious black spectacles, spouts some of the worst therapist speak I’ve ever heard. She’s bossy, controlling and not much of a listener. Her admonishments for Sophie to accept that the accident was suicide and face down those feelings, while back-channeling with suspicious husband James, could push almost anyone to trendy hallucinogenic therapy – or at least anyone with Sophie’s bad judgement.

The “Loki” actress Mbatha-Raw deserves to carry the narrative arc of her own series, and she’s a compelling, satisfying leading lady. She’s stunning, intelligent and energetic, and, from repulsion to elation, can relay the many shades of feeling this reawakening woman experiences. What the actress can’t do is avoid the bad choices the writers have her character making, sleeping with Baden without really knowing who he is, sleeping with the potential enemy that is her untrustworthy spouse, and confiding in Caroline who’s a little too intimate with her husband. In a moment of supreme bad judgment more consistent with a teen spring breaker than a professional of thirty-odd years, she pops hallucinogens and attends a formal party at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. While it’s a gorgeous set piece, it doesn’t explain why Sophie keeps throwing herself overboard, doing the wrong thing as she bumbles to discover who she rightly is.

With all this toing and froing, casting suspicion first on one suspect and then another, the script has the characters and those portraying them twisted in knots. The supporting actors, particularly Gaynor and Jackson-Cohen, sometimes seem not to know which version of themselves they are playing in any given scene. This is less mysterious than manipulative, and it continually throws viewers out of the story, a story that takes a long time over eight episodes to come to a boil.

For lovers of female-driven mysteries like “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Everywhere,” there’s enough domestic deception, design porn, and beautiful bodies in gorgeous Bay Area settings to distract. For those who, instead, are looking for a thriller that sends you off a cliff at the end of every episode, and juicy characters who move fluidly through a coherent plot of secrets and lies, this less memorable show remains on the “Surface.”

“Surface” debuts on Apple + with its first three episodes on July 29th, with new episodes released weekly.