The psychological thriller is in its era right now, and honestly we can’t get enough of these dark, twisty shows that seem to be released every few weeks. From the deep unease of Disney+ addition Under The Banner Of Heaven to Prime Video’s incredible Chloe, a great mystery-thriller is easy to binge and perfect for a rained-out weekend. Apple TV+ has been promoting its latest addition to the fray, Surface, for weeks now. While some critics are calling it a let down, there is still plenty to love in this addictive new series.
Surface centres on Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a rich, beautiful woman with a loving husband and seemingly wonderful life who has found herself at rock bottom after a suicide attempt, in which she threw herself from a ferry into the water. The incident has left her with amnesia – unable to remember anything prior to the accident, she’s piecing together her life with the help of a psychologist, her husband and her best friend.
Naturally, things are not as they seem. Sophie’s picture-perfect existence is definitely filled with skeletons, and the first three episodes see Sophie running into proverbial brick walls as she tries to navigate this life she’s found herself in. Questions arise almost immediately about her husband – was he abusive? Is he lying to her? He clearly has control issues, but were they toxic to the point of attempted murder?
You will find yourself suspicious of everyone in Surface, even Sophie – and maybe that’s where the series flounders early on. It’s hard to find your feet amidst all the questions that seem to pop up relentlessly through the first handful of episodes, and with twists from the get-go the feeling of being adrift at sea (surely intentional given the premise here) is a lot. Enough to make you stop watching, really – except you just really, really want to know what the true story is.
Mbatha-Raw gives a great performance as Sophie – that was to be expected. Her stand-out performances in The Morning Show and The Girl Before have paved the way for this star on the rise, and without her embodiment of this confused and curious woman at the centre of Surface, it would most definitely be unwatchable. One tightrope-tense scene involves Sophie sifting through her wardrobe, trying on a slinky black gown as her husband walks in. It’s clear that this new, post-accident Sophie is exhibiting different traits and personality to her predecessor, and his concern is palpable. She tells him she’s planning on wearing it to an event they’re going to, and he tells her the dress is more revealing than what she would usually go for. He points out his favourite – a modest, strapless floral gown. “Wear the floral one” he says, displaying the first signs of controlling behaviour.
It might feel chaotic, but Surface is a slick series. Shots are blurred at the edges which puts us firmly in Sophie’s scattered brain, emphasising just how stressful it is to know nothing, but be accosted with everything all at once. She’s running blind and director Sam Miller wants us to know it. The problem is that for all its stylish cinematography and eerie atmosphere, the pace is slow. Snail-like, really. Funnily enough, that’s because there is so much going on – at one point we find Sophie investigating her husband, investigating a mysterious man who says he’s a police officer, and suspicious of her best friend – all in the same episode. Yet we don’t really get anywhere, so it feels like you’re sifting through piles of jigsaw pieces and by the end of an episode, you’ve only matched two (and even then, you’re wondering if they’re correct). Great thrillers will walk us down one path, before veering us to the next – throwing all the uncertainties in Sophie’s life at us simultaneously feels overwhelming, and means the plot can’t progress to a point where it piques our interest.
Whether the sheer volume of mysteries in this series will result in a strong ending is undetermined – shows of a similar vein have successfully entwined all their leads into one explosive ending (Mare Of Easttown comes to mind), while others have fizzled as the strong start offers a weak ending (2021 Netflix film The Woman In The Window didn’t live up to its initial creepiness). Surface does everything right – stellar cast, great cinematography, a strong central mystery worth solving – but it’s letting itself down by throwing everything at its audience simultaneously.
What we need is a focus point – a trail we follow, alongside Sophie, where the twists and turns are shocking but delivered in a timely manner. At the end of the day, Sophie may be left adrift without her memory, but we’re going to need an anchor to make us care.
Surface is currently streaming on Apple TV+.