Review: SURFACE, Plunging Into Pools of Mystery

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars in a sterling series, created by Veronica West, debuting globally on Apple TV+.

Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)
Review: SURFACE, Plunging Into Pools of Mystery

Sophie's choice? Suicide. But why? She can't remember.

The first three episodes debut globally Friday, July 29 on Apple TV+. The subsequent five episodes will premiere globally every Friday. I've seen all eight episodes.

From outward appearances, Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) enjoys an enviable life. She is married to successful venture capitalist James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), lives in a lovely home in a great San Francisco neighborhood, and spends her leisure days as a philanthropist, doing good in the world. So why did she attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a ferry while crossing the bay?

Sophie doesn't know. She is suffering from post-traumatic amnesia, which sounds like an affliction invented for movies and television series, but, in truth, is a very real condition that may take weeks or even months to resolve. Sophie is seeing Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste) on a regular basis for psychiatric treatment, but a full recovery of her memories is doubtful.

In the meanwhile, she endeavors to stay busy, getting back into the swing of things, spending casual time with her best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor), and slowly rebuilding her relationship with the guarded James, who appears to be quite concerned about helping her to forget the things behind and focus on what lies ahead for them.

But Sophie continues to wonder why she would jump overboard with the intention of ending her life. She also has strange flashbacks to earlier times, like fractured snapshots of the past that keep coming to mind. And who is that good looking fellow who always seems to be looking at her?

With an unerring eye for creating empathetic characters who don't do exactly what you expect they would do -- see, for example, Fast Color (2018) or The Morning Show (2020) or The Girl Before (2021) -- Gugu Mbatha-Raw embodies a remarkable woman who doesn't know who or what she was before her near-fatal plunge. As certain memories return, they affect her view of herself and others, shifting her perspective subtly but surely, and prompting the audience to redraw perceptions about the key people in Sophie's life.

It's a brilliant, nuanced performance, capturing the shifting perspective that is being experienced by Sophie in real time. Oliver Jackson-Cohen, best known to me as the abusive husband in The Invisible Man (2020), initially shows signs that suggest James may have a darker side that he keeps hidden from others. The reality is something else again.

Ari Graynor provides able support as a loyal, longtime friend, while Fran├žois Arnaud enlivens things as James' best friend, a fellow venture capitalist whose avaricious tendencies are tempered by brotherly affection. Stephan James is the good-looking fellow, named Baden, who has key secrets to reveal and ends up playing a major role in the narrative.

Created by Veronica West, the series has a number of twists and turns; some I saw coming and some I definitely did not. West's writing credits date back to Ugly Betty (2009) and a number of other respectable shows, but her key credit is probably the new version of High Fidelity (2020), which reshaped the character and the narrative. In Surface, she takes a familiar notion -- many of us would love to start our lives over again, only better -- and runs with it to places I did not expect to see. The characters are marvelously layered, which are unpeeled only as the narrative develops.

Of course, this is all possible because Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an extraordinary actor, fully in control of her character, her emotions, and her motivations. Surface simmers for a good while, chiefly because of her performance, and then it ignites and keeps burning right through its ending, which left me shaking my head in wonder.

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Apple TV+Ari GraynorGugu Mbatha-RawOliver Jackson-CohenStephan JamesUSVeronica West

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