Surface review: Gugu Mbatha-Raw shines in this slick, glossy and tense thriller
Apple TV+’s Surface begins with an attempted ending. Sophie, the wife of rich financier James, has jumped into the waters of San Francisco Bay in an attempt to end her life.
Saved by the emergency services, Sophie, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is left with a severe case of amnesia and a life she doesn’t feel is quite hers anymore. As she pieces her life back together, and memories start to retun, she wonders did she really jump, or did somebody push her?
Such are the knotty questions that plague the protagonist during Surface, a show that’s so slick and glossy it sometimes feels hard to grasp properly.
Created by Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, it boasts a bevy of Bright Young Things in its cast.
One of those is Mbatha-Raw, who puts in a characteristically excellent performance as Sophie. She’s struggling to put the pieces of her life together after the accident and is starting to suspect that she can’t trust anyone– not least herself, as videos she discovers on her own laptop start to reveal.
However, various dialogue-heavy scenes with her therapist (“You have to move forward. Face your fears,” she is told on multiple occasions), the show attempts to convince her that nothing is wrong and her life is, in fact, normal.
“Tell me. What’s so wrong with your situation?” she is asked at one point. “You have a beautiful home, friends, a husband who wants to love you.”
“Exactly, that’s what I don’t understand,” Sophie replies. “If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?”
Fighting for Sophie’s affection, and trust, is James (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), her shady husband, whose behaviour has ‘red flag’ written all over it. He stalks her via video camera, tries to break into her laptop, and removes her access to their shared bank account.
On the other hand, there’s police officer Baden (Stephan James), who, we discover, has been having a secret affair with pre-accident Sophie behind her husband’s back.
He’s a stand-up guy (or so he seems), giving money to struggling kids and lurking in the background of various scenes, trying to warn Sophie that something is up. Though these characters have been sketched in such clichéd strokes that I hope there’s more to both of them than how they first appear.
This has been billed as a thriller, and indeed, the show excels at conjuring up a lingering sense of dread (Mbatha-Raw’s minute facial spasms of fear were setting me off by the end) and the sense that nobody is to be trusted.
However, if there is such a thing as too much thriller, then this show suffers from it. The concept isn’t new, the dialogue is hokey and melodramatic, and one particular plot device (involving a sex tape with entirely too much handy, expositional dialogue) will get many viewers’ eyes rolling.
But the test of any show’s early episodes is whether there’s enough in them to keep you watching, and in that aspect Surface clears the bar brilliantly.
Who cares if it’s over the top? It’s slick and entertaining - I’m just hoping the promised plot twists materialise.
The first three episodes of Surface are now streaming on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly