Shallow new mystery Surface puts style over substance [Apple TV+ recap] ★★☆☆☆

Glossy mystery series Surface gets off to a bumpy, soapy start this week on Apple TV+. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who you might know from The Morning Show) stars as Sophie, a woman who lost her memory after what could have been an accident or a suicide attempt.

Like Truth Be Told, Another Apple TV+ series from producer Reese Witherspoon, this one is a prestige look at a woman undergoing a lot of changes in her life as the result of crime … or is it?

Surface recap: First three episodes

Season 1, episodes 1-3: As the show starts, everyone believes Sophie (Mbatha-Raw) tried to kill herself a few months ago. She jumped off a ferry in the middle of the ocean, and as a result can’t remember most of her life leading up to the incident.

As her therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste) tells her, it’s a miracle she’s still alive for how deliberate the attempt appeared to be. Of course, Sophie’s not really satisfied with that answer.

“If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?” she asks.

And Sophie’s life does seem perfect. She lives in a gorgeous apartment in San Francisco with her husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She has a rewarding job at a hospital as a nurse. And she hangs with high-society friends like Caroline (Ari Graynor), who fawns over her and tells her how beautiful she is.

Troubling flashbacks

The trouble is, Sophie experiences flashes of memory back to the time before the accident. And she’s starting to have questions about who she was and why things happened that way.

One day at a party, a man named Thomas Baden (Stephan James) — who Sophie has no memory of — approaches her and says, “Your husband isn’t who you think he is.” Then he vanishes for fear of being caught.

So Sophie logs into the hospital computer to look at her own records, and finds a domestic assault flag. Nothing conclusive, but two and two makes four. Something weird is going on here.

… and disturbing connections

As she’s rediscovering this part of her life, she undergoes an experimental neurological therapy that meant to tap into her blocked memories and reconnect her with her former self.

During treatment, she sees something she hasn’t seen before: herself, looking harried on the deck of the boat before the accident.

She decides to meet with Baden, who, it turns out, was the cop investigating her accident, looking for evidence of foul play. But that’s not the whole truth because he also knows what bar she used to frequent before the accident and why she liked it.

Later, she checks her phone, which she hasn’t been able to log into because she forgot her password, and finds a video of her and Baden being intimate in a hotel room. She finds him the next day and screams at him to stay away from her. But we all know this isn’t over.

Surface: TV amnesia and other nonsense

Mystery man Thomas Baden (played by Stephan James) seems to have some answers for Sophie.
Photo: Apple TV+

There’s a non-zero chance this show becomes OK but there are about a zillion strikes against Surface from the jump.

First, there’s the TV amnesia stuff, which is all nonsense. Yes, people do lose portions of their memory all the time. But it’s never like this, where you have to find the wizard key in the secret dungeon to unlock your memories. Her therapist also hilariously tells her that there’s almost no chance she’ll get her memories back, and that even if she does she can’t trust them. Just… making all of this up as she goes. But it’s TV, so whatever, I’d go with it, except that’s hardly the only problem.

There also seems to be a lot of, uhh … blank spaces about psychiatry and neuroscience and stuff all over the place. When Sophie gets hooked up to the EKG pads for her therapy, she starts having flashbacks and wonders if the doctor is reading it on the machine.

“Are you able to see what’s going on in my head?” she asks.

“Not really… it’s more like a visual representation of activity,” the tech says.

“Oh…too bad,” Sophie replies.

I guess my question is … did Sophie, a nurse, think that the machine could literally see her thoughts? When she lost her memory, did she forget … how like all things work?

A problematic timeline

Surface’s timeline also seems screwy. How long has Sophie been out of the hospital following the accident? Why does she not know the cop who investigated her suicide? Presumably the investigation came after she started making new memories.

And then there’s the iPhone with the incriminating sex tape. You’re telling me a nurse couldn’t figure out a way to get into her phone in the 155 days since her accident? There’s more than one way to reset a password. Why would she just wait until she maybe remembered it?

Plus, if that’s the actual number of days since the accident, I find it hard to believe the guy she was cheating on her husband with would wait that long to reach out to her.

Trouble at the top of Surface

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Photo: Apple TV+

Surface creator Veronica West also wrote for Chicago Fire, Bull and Hart of Dixie, so by now she’s firmly entrenched in prime time storytelling rules. I guess my problem is the way they try ginning up the usual soap opera beats with high-end trappings.

I mean, even the Apple TV+ PR website describes the show as being set in “high-end San Francisco,” which is a hilarious phrase all on its own. It’s not a car. It’s a place. We don’t call midtown Manhattan “high-end New York.”

Director (and prestige TV veteran) Sam Miller fills Surface with more shallow focus than a classroom full of broken microscopes. And the edit flits between the present and past with what’s meant to represent the subliminal return of Sophie’s traumatic understanding of her past life. My friend, critic Ben Sachs, calls this kind of filmmaking “Resnais-core,” after French filmmaker Alain Resnais, who practically invented jumping in time with an edit.

The trouble is, in Surfacethere isn’t much waiting all the wonkery and “style.” It’s not like the show is about anything other than a girl remembering her accident. She sees the accident, she remembers the accident, there might be an attempted murder. It’s all too literal.

Less-than-stellar performances

Surface recap: Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays Sophie's husband James, and he doesn't give us much.
Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays Sophie’s husband James, and he doesn’t give us much.
Photo: Apple TV+

Then there are the performances. As Sophie’s husband James, Oliver Jackson-Cohen comes across as a true nonentity, giving and receiving absolutely nothing in his role as a possible murderous spouse. He’s too dull to be menacing, or the love of anyone’s life. Writer Scott Ashlin once described Bruce Cabot’s King Kong performance as “solid mahogany,” and I can think of no better way to describe our man here.

Mbatha-Raw, too, is all wrong for her lead role. That’s is a huge bummer, because I haven’t seen her give a bad performance before. But I can’t help but feel her director and writer are pushing her into an extreme emotional culs-de-sac in every scene.

Everything she says is supposed to be a show-stopper, a line for a trailer. And after 40 minutes of these, none of them sounding natural or un-forced, Sophie stops being a character and becomes a plot-point regurgitation machine.

“You’re right! I don’t remember! That’s the sad fucking truth of the matter and we both have to live with it!” Things of that nature.

Things just don’t add up

Mbatha-Raw and Ari Graynor, supposedly best friends on the show, have zero chemistry. And Mbatha-Raw never really sounds like she’s laughing authentically at anything.

It also doesn’t really track that a woman trying to piece together whether she attempted suicide would just flatly turn down overtures from a cop who says he knows what happened, especially after she saw footage of them having sex on camera.

Surface Also, despite being so atmosphere-forward, exhibits very little in the way of authentically communicated beats. When Sophie breaks into her work computer, her co-worker yawns big, comically big, which Sophie allows to ask, “Long night?”

When Sophie arrives at a big party, she’s taken by the building in which it’s taking place and says out loud to the whole room, “What a lovely idea to have a party here…. I never would have thought of it.” Weird thing to say, first of all, just extremely odd tee up for the next piece of conversation. And this whole room full of people — who know she’s suffering from amnesia — look at her like she’s crazy, forcing her to run from the room, embarrassed.

A guest comes up to James, horrified, and asks, “Didn’t you guys get married here?” It’s comically pushy writing. And so far, it’s not in service of much.

★★☆☆☆

Watch Surface on Apple TV+

The first three episodes of Surface premiered July 29 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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