Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Star Power Redeems Series Thrills
AppleTV+ Surface is the latest drama series from Reese Witherspoon’s production company Hello Sunshine, whom we, at this point, have nothing but to thank for our modern obsession with watching dissatisfied, privileged white women stare longingly out of windows while their sketchy husbands lurk in the background. Likewise, the DNA of Witherspoon’s most acclaimed production credits, including big little lies and missing girlare woven throughout the actress’ latest TV attempt, about another dissatisfied and privileged (black) woman with a husband she should probably leave.
Created by Veronica West, Surface stars British actress and co-producer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Sophie Ellis, the wife of a San Francisco venture capitalist, who loses her long-term memory from a head injury after jumped from a boat during a suicide attempt. At least, that’s what her husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) — whose vibes are immediately turned off — are told by her medical records and a particularly condescending shrink named Hannah (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Think of a tonally sad and hazy version of At the sea to intense orchestral music.
The series begins five months after Sophie’s incident, when she physically functions but is still an empty shell of a person due to her amnesia. Quiet and obedient to James’ wishes, we first get the idea that she’s a bit of a Stepford bride. Attending galas on her arm in fancy dresses (which he approves of) seems like the only thing she has to do between therapist sessions and experimenting with other methods of memory retrieval.
However, when Sophie begins to have flashbacks, she becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the curt answers James and his therapist gave her. She also meets a mysterious man named Baden (Stephan James), who claims to know more about her life, and especially his wife, than she does. Suddenly, with help from Baden, she has no choice but to dive into her own investigation. (Because every subsequent plot twist and character reveal is essentially a twist, that’s all I can really tell you without spoiling anything.)
So why would a woman with such a comfortable life and a wealthy, dashing husband jump out of the boat? Well, if you’ve ever read a beach novel about a dead or missing rich woman, you can probably think of a million reasons why, that’s what makes Surface a surprisingly fun and engaging game of Clue, despite what you may have read so far.
The eight-episode series, which premiered on Friday, hasn’t exactly received rave reviews, aside from Mbatha-Raw’s stellar performance, which is deeply impressive for such a hollow role. Critics pointed out Surfacelack of originality, which even the most enthusiastic viewers of the series, like myself, cannot deny. From its hazy opening credits to its opulent setting to the type of woman at its center, it looks like it would have been fresher in 2016. This isn’t a particularly sexy crime drama either (although all those who play it is technically hot).
Still, I didn’t interpret the show as “bland”. Rather, as someone who has seen a lot of poorly made, convoluted, and very difficult television in recent years (ahem, Euphoria), I appreciated Surface for its simplicity, both in its premise and in the way its many twists and turns unfold smoothly.
In the age of “prestige” television, it’s easy for writers and producers of shows with big budgets and a serious, cerebral subject matter to get high on their own sourcing, ignoring the specific constraints and nature of the medium in favor of something they consider “cinematic. But Surface has the delightfully engaging and biting episodic structure of a suspenseful prime-time soap opera you would have watched on ABC in the mid-2000s.
““Surface” has the delightfully engaging and biting episodic structure of a suspenseful prime-time soap opera you would have watched on ABC in the mid-2000s.”
The series is also bolstered by a set of captivating performances. Mbatha-Raw, who certainly deserves more attention, has the daunting task of playing a figure with no characterization other than “glamorous woman” for the early episodes. But the level of emotion she’s able to capture on her face and behind her eyes allows audiences to see inside her brain the entire time she’s on screen. With a less skilled performer, the show, which relies heavily on the success of her performance, would be like watching a generic avatar in a video game.
Additionally, Ari Graynor stands out as Sophie’s best friend, Caroline, who doesn’t seem immediately trustworthy. Whenever the camera rests on the actress, who usually takes comedic roles, it reminds me of the days when actors had interesting faces that told their own story in addition to the character they were playing. And James, whose memorable turn in If Beale Street Could Talk should have given him more star credits years ago, is equally compelling in his role as the “man of mystery.”
Maybe it’s the #FreeBritney movement or the reversal of Roe v. Wade who made me completely savor this story of a woman trying to take control of her life – and admittedly shed a few tears during a scene where Sophie feels lost and defeated, backed by a lush score and evocative. Either way, I had a great, immersive time (aside from the tears) watching Mbatha-Raw play Sherlock Holmes and walking clueless around San Francisco in gorgeous cocktail dresses.