As an admirer of her work as Beautiful at Beyond the Lights to the episode “San Junipero” of black mirrorI look forward to possibly seeing a new Gugu Mbatha-Raw television vehicle that doesn’t seem like a general waste of its unmistakable charisma and dramatic depth.
This surely didn’t happen on Apple TV+ The morning show, in which Mbatha-Raw was formidable despite an offensively underwritten character. This didn’t happen with Disney+ Loki, in which the underwriting was blatant, if not actually offensive. This didn’t happen with HBO Max The girl beforewhich at least offered Mbatha-Raw a substantial role, albeit stuck in a soapy stuffed and forgettable thriller.
Placing Apple TV+ Surface much more in the latter category, so much so that it borders on examining how the superficial – or “surface” trappings, if you will – of a well-to-do life can often be a trick, a scam or a feign behind which hides an internal rot. This is, semi-ironically, too superficial an observation, requiring narrative complexity to be worth thinking about. Here, unfortunately, this is not the case. Surface ends up being a bland meditation on reinvention and how our personalities are shaped by our inescapable pasts and personal traumas, worthy thoughts told in an unsurprising setting that, once again, entirely squanders the full, utterly solid game Mbatha Raw.
Surface – destined to be confused by TV critics and genre obsessives with the short-lived NBC alien sea cow drama of the same name – stars Mbatha-Raw as Sophie, wife of the wealthy San Francisco venture capitalist James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Sophie is still trying to get her life back – marred by a luxury home, an extensive wardrobe and one gala event after another – five months after what authorities ruled was a suicide attempt, involving a jump a ferry.
The problem: Sophie doesn’t remember jumping. In fact, she remembers almost nothing of her past, and when a mysterious man (Thomas Baden of Stephan James) confronts her and says he’s a detective and the things she’s been told about his incident cannot be trusted, an investigation ensues. Is James who he claims to be? Is Baden who he claims to be? Is Sophie’s supposed best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) who she claims to be? Heck, is Sophie who she thinks she is, and if she can’t remember who she was, is she still that person (or anyone)? And while we delve into the fundamental psychology of nature versus nurture – Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sophie’s shrink – which aspects of your personality and behavior are governed by past actions and which parts of your identity are intrinsic or primitive?
For perhaps the first two hours of this eight-episode drama, I was tentatively optimistic that creator Veronica West (High fidelity) had stealthily given to Garry Marshall At the sea the Bel-Air treatment: take a title and premise that people like because it seems silly and frothy and say, “If you take it seriously, you’ll realize that this is a story of abuse and perverse and disturbing manipulation that audiences have come to treat as romantic.” Sad spoiler alert: it’s not.
Really, Surface isn’t even as convoluted and complicated as The girl beforeone of many recent limited series that I believe would have been a low-budget, feature-length erotic thriller from another media age, inevitably based on a cooking pot to read on the beach. Surface is an original story without anything very original. It’s not that it’s exactly derivative, it’s just that very little is happening here. It’s eight o’clock when Character X tells Sophie, “Don’t trust Character Y” and Sophie briefly becomes suspicious before realizing that Character X is actually sleazy, only to realize that Character Y is sleazy, too, tossed into a salad spinner with a light dressing of very, very questionable self-help mumbo-jumbo that even the show doesn’t find in the least bit compelling.
At various points in these early episodes, Sophie experiments with different alternative therapies – sensory deprivation, hypnosis, etc. -San Francisco, something that happens at least twice per episode. There are aspects of Sophie’s mental health journey that seem tangential to Hulu’s dismal Nine perfect strangers (Nicole Kidman executive produced that one, while Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine is behind Surface), only this mess of a show had feel-good ideas it wanted to critique and colorful supporting characters that kept things from being boring. Surface has a plot and a general outline, but none of the details have been filled in with distinction.
The narrative is completely propelled by half-heard misinterpreted conversations, flawed Google search, and Sophie’s general incompetence as a self-exploring detective. The phrase “Wouldn’t it have been easier if…” comes up at least half a dozen times in my notes. The show has no stakes, except that if Sophie really has amnesia and is really enlightened by someone she thinks she loves, that’s pretty nasty. No one has bothered to establish a more complex reason why this general empathy for Sophie should then be converted into actual suspense or mystery, and as a result, I was never shocked by any of the false-outs. nor curious about any of the revelations.
Keeping the series watchable for much of its running time is Mbatha-Raw, which captures Sophie’s continued fragility and alludes to a ferocity that’s either new to her recovery or an innate part of the woman quest. ‘she was. The series is heavily invested in Sophie’s killer wardrobe, and Mbatha-Raw dresses up with stylish aplomb. She is, however, held back by the show’s lack of compelling characters or performances. The actors are either wasted (Jean-Baptiste), badly chosen (Jackson-Cohen), left without any personality traits (James), or left without the possibility of playing on one of their strengths (Graynor, nevertheless my favorite part of all ). Maybe some viewers will embrace the possible love triangle or the setup where one-dimensional characters do bad things, caught up in the rare film or TV conspiracy that isn’t really big at all.
Don’t expect anything conclusive after eight hours. And if you’re like me, don’t expect the finale to introduce anything to worry about a possible second season. I am not in favor of canceling TV shows, but I am in favor of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and the more she is trapped under the Surfacethe less likely she is to get the project she truly deserves, a more confusing Hollywood puzzle than anything on this show.