'Surface' review: Gugu Mbatha-Raw drama falls short of its promise

Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in Surface (Apple TV+)
Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in Surface (Apple TV+)

Second chances are never what they seem in Surface, an Apple TV+ original drama which premieres on the platform from 29 July.

Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is married to James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) an investment banker, while best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) serve as the sole connection to her life prior to a life changing accident.

Swathed in affluence yet missing long term memories, Sophie slowly starts to question her life of quiet decadence until things begin unravelling. However, despite an intriguing lead in and consistently strong performances throughout, Surface really struggles to deliver on its promise.

For the most part, creator Veronica West (High Fidelity) intentionally sets up Surface to leave audiences in the dark, while only the occasional puzzle piece is allowed to drop. Foggy recollections and dialled down therapy sessions pass for plot, and may leave viewers struggling to make sense of events.

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BAFTA-nominated director Sam Miller (I May Destroy You) also adds to this ambience in his opening episodes, as Sophie fails to find a routine amongst the mundane options on offer. A situation which is not improved by composer Olafur Arnaulds, who adds to the sensory overload by producing a score which underpins the ambiguous visual style.

Surface (Apple TV+)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Surface. (Apple TV+)

In short, Surface hits a dramatic roadblock because it tries to be too many things at once, by chopping and changing between influences. Memento from Christopher Nolan clearly plays a large part in bringing certain elements of this story together, which on its own would have been great, had they had stopped there. However, in story terms this feels like an open buffet of narrative choices, where the writers felt compelled to steal from everywhere.

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Extramarital affairs, big money embezzlement and experimental psychotherapy sessions are also thrown into the mix. Introducing narrative segues which often make this series less enjoyable, as these obstacles feel fabricated rather than organic impediments. Not only that, but as the memory loss tangent gives way to more outlandish digressions, Surface also threatens to become a victim of style over substance.

Surface (Apple TV+)
Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface. (Apple TV+)

Perfectly lit business gatherings framed by low level strip lights and cool metallic colours sit in contrast to Sophie’s morning run, which is all washed out San Francisco palettes and picturesque snapshots of the Bay area.

There is no denying that this Apple original looks pretty and is held together by a solid performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Loki). However, her nuanced turn never really makes up for issues elsewhere.

Both Jackson-Cohen and Ari Graynor are press-ganged into stereotypical roles, which as husband and best friend never feel fully developed. Obvious narrative choices which occur some way into episode three, ensure that Surface drifts into cliché very quickly. For those audience members who last longer and make it to number five in the run, there is no salvation waiting as momentum is also sorely lacking.

Surface (Apple TV+)
Ari Graynor in Surface. (Apple TV+)

Sophie and her memory loss go from priority one to way down the pecking order, as other superfluous developments take precedence. Not only does this bog the show down with meaningless segues which offer few emotional pay offs, but it simultaneously also sucks any life from the room.

Similar to Loot, which was recently released on Apple as well, Surface is populated by people who are almost impossible to identify with. On top of that in a desire to please the widest possible demographic, this show buckles under the weight of thematic tangents — while substance takes a back seat and characters cease to matter.

In a series of far-fetched revelations Sophie realises her husband is in over his head at work, while discovering she has also been far from faithful. From there her motivations for remembering are coloured by self-interest, while any empathy she may have garnered is gone. So perhaps the issue with Surface comes down to characterisation, where there is literally no one audiences can get behind. Not because of their money, status or personal peccadillos, but for something much more damaging — they lack redeeming features.

Surface (Apple TV+)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface. (Apple TV+)

Our fundamental inability to care undermines everything else Surface is trying to achieve, either dramatically or otherwise. Which is a real shame, as buried beneath the artifice there are some great moments. These range from clever in-camera effects which communicate Sophie’s continued psychological detachment, through to flashes of classic symbolism that recall Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia.

Aside from those stylistic digressions which desperately add substance to a story lacking identity, Surface rarely promises to pay back the time audiences will need to invest.

For an enthralling Apple original, people are better off seeking out Taron Egerton in Blackbird or the recent adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation instead.

At least they possess the dramatic chops necessary to deliver something of substance, rather than acres of window dressing and empty promises.

Surface premieres on Apple TV+ from 29 July.