The amnesia plot is nothing new. Watching Apple TV+’s eight episode Surface, it almost feels that the writers also forgot the lack of novelty around memory loss. However, Surface’s stab to enliven this trope falters over the course of the season, as its protagonist Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) makes an attempt to track down the forgotten shards of her life, piece them back together, and make sense of the past in context of her confusing present.
The premiere of the series sets up very spare details of the cause of Sophie’s devastating accident. There was a boat, water, a fall, and then a great forgetting. With information spotty, both the audience and Sophie alike struggle with acceptance. Can this be all that we know? What can we trust from a baseline of knowing so little? From this generalized and totalizing anxiety, Surface constructs its thriller. Every other character in the show gets infused with both Sophie and the audience’s plausible mistrust. Who can we view as honest from the perspective of someone who has lost all foundational background knowledge of herself?
The series feasts on this dynamic to a fault with a melodramatic bent. Over the course of the first season, each supporting character is framed with dubious intent. Sophie’s husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) fluctuates between picture-perfect husband and foreboding domestic abuser in extremes. Sophie’s therapist (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) appears one part genuine healer and another part a possible insider in Sophie’s own deception of self. Even Sophie’s secret lover (Stephan James)—locking this show into yet another trope, the love triangle—shifts in perspective. Is he the wild love she needs or yet another bad actor in search of a woman to exploit?
Frustratingly, bad actors aren’t the source of Surface’s failures. The impressive lineup of acting talent shows from actors’ previous work: Mbatha-Raw’s work on Black Mirror’s San Junipero, James’ title role in If Beale Street Could Talk, and Jean-Baptiste’s own Academy Award nomination for Secrets & Lies. If anything, it’s the writing that keeps this series held back from its potential. From stilted dialogue, a compulsion to tell rather than show the audience critical plot points, histrionic direction, and a tight-fistedness about Sophie’s memory recall, what is learned over Surface does not feel earned. And what the audience understands of Surface at the finale isn’t a question of audience intelligence, but rather a reflection of a plot that was never quite glued together in a coherent fashion. Surface loses its ability to have true Surface tension.
At times it feels that this project was made in reaction to the sleeper hits of the pandemic, eager to combine elements of those winners in a new project. From HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant’s alcoholic blackouts to The Undoing’s sexed-up suspicious husbands, Surface comes across as a bad blend of more successful shows’ attributes, vying for prestige distinction by way of Lifetime. Nothing is resolved by the close of Season 1. If anything, it sets up its only chance at coherency through a renewal. What Surface fails to understand is that it isn’t clever in its lack of clarity. Sure, revelations about Sophie’s previous memories shouldn’t be abundant. But giving nearly nothing to viewers, Surface makes a poor case for itself as anything but fluff TV. As the viewers, we want to root for Sophie’s story. But with the story we got, the argument for another season is the same: I can’t recall one.
Surface premieres Friday, July 29th on Apple TV+
Katherine Smith is Virginia-based freelance writer and contributor to Paste Magazine. For her musings on popular culture, politics, and beyond, find her on Twitter @k_marie_smith
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