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Surface review: A memory loss thriller that gives serious déjà vu

Gugu Mbatha-Raw livens up proceedings but we've seen this all before.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Sophie in Surface.
Apple TV+
Published: Tuesday, 26th July 2022 at 5:02 pm
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A star rating of 2 out of 5.

"Memories define us. So what if you lost yours every time you went to sleep? Your name, your identity, your past, even the people you love - all forgotten overnight. And the one person you trust may only be telling you half the story."

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That's the logline for SJ Watson's novel for Before I Go To Sleep. It also almost perfectly describes the plot of Surface, the latest glossy series to hit Apple TV+, except in this instance she doesn't even lose her memories nightly. They're just gone at the start of the first episode.

That's the big central problem for the new thriller series, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Sophie, a woman who is left without her long-term memory after an apparent suicide attempt falling from a boat (although whether her head trauma was truly self-inflicted is thrown into question early on). It's simply the case that it's been done before.

Of course you can't judge a series purely on its resemblance to another story, but the problem is that's all Surface really does – resemble other, better stories. It's a psychological thriller by numbers, and while there are twists and turns along the way to keep you engaged, there's no hook here, nothing modern or updated or innovative to latch hold of.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface
Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Surface Apple TV+

Mbatha-Raw is a phenomenal actress and she puts in typically strong work as Sophie. She manages to completely sell us on Sophie's PTSD, her frantic confusion, her terror at living a life she knows nothing about, elevating every scene she's in (which is most of them). However, she's also hamstrung by clunky, expositional dialogue throughout. There's only so much even an actor of her calibre can do with what is essentially a refrain of "if my life was so perfect, why did I try to end it?"

It's a difficult balance when a central character doesn't know their own life – a certain amount of exposition is baked into the premise, but unnatural dialogue still sticks out like a sore thumb. Frequent scenes in which Sophie visits to her therapist (a wasted Marianne Jean-Baptiste) are particular offenders.

Of the supporting cast, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Stephan James get the most to work with, forming the two sides of a love triangle with Sophie, and both are fine, if somewhat bland. Jackson-Cohen brings a welcome air of menace as Sophie's husband Baden, although this in large part feels like a holdover from his role in The Invisible Man – another, better thriller this series rides on the coattails of.

This being an Apple TV+ series, of course it looks phenomenal. It centres on the lives of the uber-rich in San Francisco, meaning every house is a gorgeous, marbled mansion and every outfit is luxurious and lavish. A frequent metaphorical revisit to the waters into which Sophie fell adds a welcome and stirring visual motif, while blurred camera edges effectively highlight her perpetual disorientation.

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

The upper-class setting feels like it should be important, but the series doesn't seem to have anything much to say about the lives of the mega-wealthy, other than the shocking revelation that they're not all happy and many have lied to get what they want. For a series called Surface, it really does live up to its name, and refuses to dig particularly deep into any of its themes.

It doesn't examine its central theme of gaslighting in any meaningful way, and instead seems happy to coast, moving from reveal to reveal without engaging with its own central questions. Then, at about the mid-way point of the series it hit me – I didn't care about the mystery. If I never found out what happened to Sophie that day, whether she truly did try to kill herself or whether her husband was involved in some nefarious scheme, it wouldn't affect me in the slightest.

That's a big issue in a thriller such as this, but it's not to say the series isn't at all diverting or is completely without merit. In many ways it feels more like a casualty of growing pains in this new era of television and how studios market their shows.

The series has been called an "elevated thriller" but in truth it's an "elevated soap opera" – Neighbours if it was given a massive budget and had all the fun sapped out of it. It's perfectly watchable, self-serious shlock dressed up as a high-end drama. None of it matters and you kind of just have to go with that, or risk sinking under its endless melodrama.

It just feels like, given Mbatha-Raw's talent and Apple's money, Surface could have been so much more.

The first three episodes of Surface will stream on Apple TV+ from Friday 29th July 2022, with further episodes being released weekly. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what's on tonight.

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