Surface review – Gugu Mbatha-Raw can’t save this terminally vibe-less thriller

<span>Photograph: Apple</span>
Photograph: Apple

‘Class envy” may have limited use as political analysis, but it’s a solid basis for a TV drama. In 2017, Big Little Lies spilled the scandalous secrets of wealthy women in multimillion-dollar beachside properties, and inspired a slew of imitators – most of them also starring Nicole Kidman. Few, though, have distilled the sub-genre’s appeal as crudely as Surface (Apple TV+). What do we want? Gorgeous, rich people being miserable. When do we want it? Now. (Or at least, the first three episodes on demand, with the rest debuting weekly.)

In Surface the main gorgeous rich person is Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the indifferent owner of a grand San Francisco home (one of those Lower Haight Victorians, for architecture fans), a walk-in wardrobe brimming with designer clothing and a diary packed with nothing but social engagements. Some months ago, Sophie lost her memory after – apparently – jumping off the side of a ferry in an attempted suicide. And herein likes the series’ central mystery, as Sophie helpfully signposts during a therapy session: “If my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?”

Of course, under that placid surface, the woman is a-swirl with nebulous emotions and treacherous undercurrents. She has similar problems to Nicole Kidman’s character in Big Little Lies, and indeed Nicole Kidman’s character in The Undoing, in that her model-handsome husband may well be plotting to murder her, but – bad luck – she fancies him anyway. That’s the show’s secondary mystery: how this marriage endures in the near-total absence of sexual chemistry, especially as husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) has an annoying habit of blinking really slowly during moments of stress.

Who can Sophie confide in about her troubles? Not the sexy undercover cop (Stephan James) who she always seems to bump into on her daily, sweat-free jog – his interest in her case may be more than merely professional. Not her bestie Caroline (Ari Graynor), whose pseudo-sympathetic head tilt is a body language red-flag. And certainly not the disapproving therapist, Hannah, played by Marianne Jean Baptiste. Those thick-rimmed specs may inspire confidence (they’re reminiscent of the Guardian’s own agony aunt, Philippa Perry), but this woman clearly can’t be trusted.

All this is obvious since, from the opening shot onwards, Surface is a paint-by-numbers psychological thriller. That initial image of Sophie sinking down, down into the sea’s murky depths, then waking from her nightmare, head nestled on a silk pillow is the same “drowning woman” visual metaphor, rendered in the same watery blues and greys, that we’ve seen a hundred times before. And that repetitive imagery would be more forgivable if Surface’s slow plot didn’t feel equally waterlogged.

It’s no surprise to see an exec producer credit here for Big Little Lies’ Reese Witherspoon (her 2020 show Little Fires Everywhere was more of the same), but creator-showrunner Veronica West should have been an unpredictable element. She’s best known for the 2020 TV adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, which had its moments, despite egregiously miscasting Zoë Kravitz (another Big Little Lies alum) as a nerdy, lovelorn muso. Surface, to West’s credit, does not repeat the error. Mbatha-Raw, with her brittle elegance, makes perfect sense as this polished-yet-pained tabula rasa of a woman, a stranger even to herself. Every character in this show has superficial charm, but only she can convincingly hint at depths beneath.

Unfortunately it takes until episode five for Sophie to so much as smudge her eye makeup, never mind display a dark side. Her tastefully insipid world is crying out for a splash of chaos, but these characters are so inert they make the Italian marble kitchen island look lively. Even Sophie and James’s wild nights of abandon are tragically starched. An impulsive all-nighter, early on in their courtship, involves sipping at high-end spirits, shuffling to bland jazz and never undoing so much as a top button.

Such terminal vibe-lessness must be God’s way of punishing the ultra-rich, but that doesn’t explain why we TV viewers must also suffer. As its mystery unfolds, Surface plays more like a cautionary tale for chippy social climbers, who dare to claim their share, than a thoughtful look at one woman’s shifting sense of self. The message is clear: it doesn’t matter how far you run – or how svelte you look in your athleisure running gear – you can never escape your past.