Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an undoubtedly skilled actor and bonafide star. From Doctor Who and Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” to The Morning Show, Loki, and The Girl Before, she commands the screen by immersing herself in character. So it’s understandable why she was chosen to lead the Apple TV+ psychological thriller Surface. (It’s also her first co-producer gig alongside TMS co-star Reese Witherspoon.) The neo-noir drama completely relies on Mbatha-Raw, who is in almost every frame, to sell intense emotions like angst, fear, and uncertainty. It’s a riveting performance, just not a riveting show, the rare middling new drama from a streamer we’ve come to rely on.
Created by Veronica West, the series insists (read: tries way, way too hard) on being sexy and edgy. But it sadly doesn’t go beyond some, ahem, surface-level thrills. It’s often predictable, and in the few instances when it isn’t, the plot twists still land with anticlimactic thuds. At eight hours, the series feels drawn-out, and in need of sharper editing and direction. It’s too bad, as the story hints at potential (if not necessarily unique) intrigue.
Mbatha-Raw plays Sophie Ellis, a complicated woman who loses all of her memories after jumping off a San Francisco ferry in an attempt to take her own life. Six months later, she’s living with her doting husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a wealthy venture capitalist seemingly dedicated to ensuring Sophie’s safety. As she tries to connect the missing pieces, she can’t fathom why she would try to commit suicide in the first place. After all, Sophie figures, she leads a pretty idyllic and successful life. And it doesn’t help that neither James nor her own best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor), will discuss their histories together—or why her husband’s coworker, Harrison (François Arnaud), deeply distrusts her.
To make matters worse, Sophie meets an undercover cop, Thomas Baden (Stephan James), who she happened to have been having an affair with before her ferry incident. Thomas convinces Sophie that her husband could’ve pushed her off the boat because their marriage was on the rocks. His arrival sparks a subtle cat-and-mouse chase as Sophie tries to figure out which of the two men is lying to her and why, sorting out her own feelings for both of them, all while being haunted by flashes of her own dark past.
So yes, Surface has the components of a titillating thriller: a sultry love triangle, an erratic criminal, weighty hidden secrets, financial troubles, and a central figure reclaiming her lost identity. But the final product is a massively disappointing slow burn. The crawling pace would’ve been worthwhile if the show knew where to take its suspense, but Surface offers neither eroticism nor an edge-of-the-seat mystery. The story instead branches off into ridiculous subplots, including an unnecessary girls’ trip and an embezzlement scheme. There’s sporadic focus on Sophie’s life pre-marriage that is ultimately used to set up a (possible) second season. But why is that more important than wisely fleshing out the first one?
Portraying someone with amnesia is a bit limiting, but Mbatha-Raw is more than up to the task of vividly bringing Sophie’s many dilemmas to life. Unfortunately, Surface has the same problem as The Handmaid’s Tale: It relies too heavily on its star’s expressions to convey harrowing circumstances. Brace yourself for numerous Elisabeth Moss-style close ups, or shots of Mbatha-Raw running through the city looking bewildered. Zooming in on her face while blurring out the background looks cool but becomes tiresome when it’s repeated ad nauseam.
The show also suffers from some mundane writing, with dialogue that’s expository and unvarying, and cliffhangers that lack exciting hooks. Honestly, it’s all pretty boring, with the show spinning around in circles as Sophie shifts allegiances from James to Thomas until an extremely dissatisfying finale.
Since the audience can’t be privy to who the “bad guy” is, Sophie’s love interests stick to relatively one-note performances. It’s a shame because both actors are clearly capable of more, as seen with Jackson-Cohen in The Invisible Man and The Haunting Of Hill House, and with James in Homecoming and If Beale Street Could Talk. But they don’t get to dive into the nuances of their characters here. Other performers are equally wasted, none more than Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who plays Sophie’s brutally honest therapist, Hannah. Which is all to say: Only hardcore Mbatha-Raw fans might deem this drama worth watching, because outside of her, Surface is all splash and no depth.