Review by C.J. Bunce
For every series that exceeds your expectations–say, for example, this weekend’s premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power–a series you have hopes for disappoints. This summer, Apple TV+ subscribers were provided with a weekly dose of what was billed as a psychological thriller. Surface follows a woman of uncertain identity as she tries to find herself after she may have tried to commit suicide by jumping off a ship into the ocean and awakened afterward with amnesia. A series with such a preposterous starting point owes it to viewers to provide some compelling storytelling. With the final episode of its first season arriving this past week, the truth set in. A payoff never happens. Just a corporate effort to get viewers, complete with corporate logos waved at the viewer, banking on doses of cliffhanger endings, all setting up for a batch of unanswered questions for the final scene in hopes someone will pick it up for a second season? Save yourself the time: You have tens of thousands of other series–especially British-led series as this is–with far more compelling stories.
Typically when a writer or series addresses a serious issue like suicide, they don’t treat it like a tool of coercion and deceit. But that’s what happens here. British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Loki, Doctor Who) plays Sophie, an unknowable protagonist in a San Francisco setting that seems to try to avoid compelling views of the city. She finds she’s married to an unlikable venture capitalist with whom she shares no chemistry whatsoever. Why did she jump? We never find out. Is she really a good guy or bad guy? It’s never made clear. An interesting storyline with another woman back in England is hinted at early on, but held, and held, and held, only to be revealed as the subject of a possible second season. The woman, offered only in glimpses, is played by British actress Millie Brady (The Queen’s Gambit, Mr. Selfridge, Roadkill, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But she’s barely there.
Sophie’s husband is James, played by Armie Hammer act-alike Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House, Mr. Selfridge). The writers don’t give Jackson-Cohen’s character a chance. Mid-season the writers attempt to shoehorn into the story some redeemable qualities for him, but they are too little, too late, and unbelievable no matter how much they tell us he’s a good guy. Sophie looks at James like she hates him, and James sneers at her in every scene. Maybe Sophie has some cool backstory as a spy! We don’t find out. Maybe she’s a con artist! We don’t find that out either.
Not only are the lead characters unlikable, so goes the supporting cast, who are either cheats, criminals, or incompetent. All are uber-wealthy, without apparently having anything to do with their day but dinner parties, and in Sophie’s case, running every other scene (which often looks like shots filmed at the same time). Each is far removed from any commonality with the average TV viewer, bringing the series into the realm of a daytime soap opera. The supporting cast includes a supposed undercover detective Sophie cheats with before and after her amnesia, played by Canadian Stephan James (Race, 21 Bridges), Sophie’s BFF, who her husband cheated with, played by Ari Graynor (Fringe, Veronica Mars), James’s BFF Harrison, a criminal, played by Canadian François Armand (The Borgias), and Sophie’s incompetent therapist, played by British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Without a Trace, RoboCop). Actress Jennifer Morrison (House, MD, Star Trek) directs one of the episodes.
Whodunnit? Apparently nobody. Why would someone sit through all eight episodes? Maybe because of the idea that a psychological thriller about a woman in trouble jumping into the ocean in San Francisco might be hiding some kind of homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The series fails at what should be simple: capturing the interesting details of San Francisco as so many great TV series and movies have done.
On the surface, in the middle, and at the end, Surface is an experiment by showrunner/creator Veronica West that doesn’t satisfy at any level as a mystery or thriller or drama. List this series at the bottom of our several reviews of British series. The first season of Surface is now streaming on Apple TV+.