‘Surface’ Review: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Outshines the Bland Drama in Apple TV+’s Uninvolving Thriller Series

‘Surface’ Review: Gugu Mbatha-Raw Outshines the Bland Drama in Apple TV+’s Uninvolving Thriller Series

As an admirer of her work from Belle to Beyond the Lights to the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror, I look forward to eventually reviewing a new Gugu Mbatha-Raw television vehicle that doesn’t feel like a general waste of her incontestable charisma and dramatic depth.

It surely didn’t happen on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, in which Mbatha-Raw was tremendous despite an offensively underwritten character. It didn’t happen with Disney+’s Loki, in which the underwriting was egregious, if not actually offensive. It didn’t happen with HBO Max’s The Girl Before, which at least offered Mbatha-Raw a substantive part, albeit one stuck in a padded and forgettable soapy thriller.

The Bottom Line

Not memorable.

Airdate: Friday, July 29 (Apple TV+)

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Stephan James, Ari Graynor, Marian Jean-Baptiste, Francois Arnaud

Creator: Veronica West


Place Apple TV+’s Surface much more in the latter category, so much so that it borders on an examination of how the superficial — or “surface,” if you will — trappings of an affluent life can often be a ruse, a con or a feint behind which lurks an internal rot. It is, semi-ironically, an all-too-superficial observation, one that requires narrative complexity to make the musing worth the effort. Here, unfortunately, it is not. Surface ends up being a bland meditation on reinvention and the way our personalities are shaped by our inescapable pasts and personal traumas, worthy thoughts told in a surprise-free framework that, once again, entirely wastes the thoroughly game and completely solid Mbatha-Raw.

Surface — destined to be confused by television critics and genre obsessives with the short-lived NBC alien sea cow drama of the same name — stars Mbatha-Raw as Sophie, wife of wealthy San Francisco venture capitalist James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Sophie is still trying to get her life — marked by a fancy house, vast wardrobe and one gala event after another — back together five months after what authorities have deemed a suicide attempt, involving a leap from a ferry.

The problem: Sophie doesn’t remember jumping. In fact, she remembers almost nothing from her past, and when a mysterious man (Stephan James’ Thomas Baden) confronts her and says that he’s a detective and the things she’s been told about her incident aren’t to be trusted, investigating ensues. Is James who he says he is? Is Baden who he says he is? Is Sophie’s supposed best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor), who she says she is? Heck, is Sophie who she thinks she is, and if she doesn’t remember who she was, is she still that person (or anybody) anymore? And while we’re noodling around with basic nature vs. nurture psychology — Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sophie’s shrink — which aspects of your personality and behavior are governed by past actions and which pieces of your identity are intrinsic or primal?

For maybe the first two hours of this eight-episode drama, I was tentatively optimistic that creator Veronica West (High Fidelity) had stealthily given Garry Marshall’s Overboard the Bel-Air treatment: taking a title and premise that people love because it seems silly and frothy and saying, “If you take it seriously, you’ll realize that this is a story of disturbingly perverse abuse and manipulation that audiences were tricked into treating as romantic.” Sad spoiler alert: It’s not.

Actually, Surface isn’t even as twisty and complicated as The Girl Before, one of many recent limited series that I felt would have been a low-budget, feature-length erotic thriller in a different media era, based inevitably on a beach-read potboiler. Surface is an original story without anything hugely original about it. It isn’t that it’s exactly derivative, just that very little happens here. It’s eight hours of Character X telling Sophie, “Don’t trust Character Y” and Sophie becoming briefly suspicious before realizing that Character X is actually the shady one, only to realize that Character Y is shady as well, thrown in a salad spinner with a light dressing of very, very questionable self-help mumbo-jumbo that even the show doesn’t find the least bit convincing.

At various points in those early episodes, Sophie is experimenting with different alternative therapies — sensory deprivation, hypnosis, etc. — and then the show just abandons that stuff entirely, determining that the only thing that actually helps is going for jogs through Vancouver-as-San Francisco, something that happens a minimum of two times per episode. There are aspects of Sophie’s mental health journey that feel tangential to Hulu’s dismal Nine Perfect Strangers (Nicole Kidman executive produced that one, while Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine is behind Surface), only that mess of a show had ideas about wellness that it wanted to critique and colorful supporting characters who kept things from being boring. Surface has a plot and general outline, but none of the details have been filled in with distinction.

The narrative is propelled completely by misinterpreted half-overheard conversations, faulty googling and Sophie’s general ineptitude as a self-exploratory detective. The phrase “Wouldn’t it have been easier if…” pops up at least a half-dozen times in my notes. The series has no stakes at all other than that if Sophie truly has amnesia and truly is being gaslighted by somebody she thinks she loves, that’s pretty mean. Nobody bothered to establish a more complex reason why this general empathy for Sophie should then be converted into suspense or actual mystery, and, as a result, I was never shocked by any of the fake-outs nor curious about any of the reveals.

Keeping the series watchable for much of its running time is Mbatha-Raw, who captures Sophie’s ongoing fragility and hints at a fierceness that’s either newfound as part of her recovery or an innate piece of the woman she used to be. The series is very invested in Sophie’s killer wardrobe, and Mbatha-Raw plays dress-up with stylish aplomb. She’s stranded, though, by the series’ lack of compelling supporting characters or performances. The actors are either wasted (Jean-Baptiste), miscast (Jackson-Cohen), left without any personality traits at all (James), or left without opportunities to play to any of their strengths (Graynor, nonetheless my favorite piece of the ensemble). Maybe some viewers will embrace the possible love triangle or the setup in which one-dimensional figures are doing bad things, caught up in the rare film or television conspiracy that isn’t actually vast at all.

Don’t expect anything conclusive by the end of eight hours. And if you’re like me, don’t expect the finale to introduce anything to make you care about a possible second season. I don’t root for TV shows to be canceled, but I do root for Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and the longer she’s trapped beneath the Surface, the less likely she is to get the project she truly deserves, a puzzle more confounding for Hollywood than anything in this show.