The idea of amnesia has long been a compelling storyline for popular culture.
This ranges from spinning wild tales in soap operas through to all-time classic films like Memento, The Bourne Identity or Mulholland Drive. Then there’s the idea of on-purpose memory loss, as seen in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, or Men In Black’s memory-zapper. Even The Hangover trilogy could arguably be classed as characters dealing with a series of abrupt blackouts (albeit self-inflicted by drinking their own body weight in booze).
It’s such a commonly used plot device that it can easily veer into on-screen trope territory. However Apple TV Plus' new thriller Surface is the latest series to jump into this concept, and it has managed to pull off a stylish, gripping psychological thriller.
“Do you know what it feels like to not remember anything? Everyone keeps telling me who they think I am…but if my life was so perfect then why did I try to end it?” We join Sophie Ellis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) shortly after what she’s been told is a suicide attempt: she jumped off a boat just off the coast of San Francisco, where she’s been living a charmed life.
However, she has no memories about her life prior to the accident, and her husband, friends - and a guy, Baden (Stephan James), who appears to be stalking her? - all seem incredibly shady. Who can she trust to tell the truth and what secrets are they hiding? The series asks us, can we really know who we are if all our long-term memories are obliterated?
Mbatha-Raw (last seen in Loki and The Morning Show) is totally compelling in this role - a lesser actor would have fallen back on pulling a series of tortured, confused faces to convey her bewilderment. But her multi-layered and nuanced performance means we’re really there with her as as slowly she begins to uncover moments from her past, and we see how each new clue impacts on her life. She questions what little she really knows when she suddenly starts to picture a figure above her on the boat - was she pushed?
The supporting cast are all set up to be questioned as to their true role in her accident. Sophie’s husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) comes across as a little too attentive, too crowding, and he feels like he’s too good to be true. His banker-bro best friend, Harrison (François Arnaud) doesn’t hide the fact he’s a dick and even her best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) seems suspiciously covering up something. You’ll even start to question her therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and whether she’s really working in Sophie’s favour. And why do people keep mentioning a woman named Tess?
From the moment Sophie falls into the water, the element runs through the heart of everything in the show, perhaps a deft touch from the I May Destroy You director, Sam Miller, who directed half of the episodes in Surface. This can be seen from the from the dappled-wave light shadows in the Ellis’ hallway to Sophie’s favourite bar being on Water Street, to even the few lines her and Caroline singalong in the car to Valerie by Amy Winehouse: “Well, sometimes I go out by myself / and I look across the water". Similarly, the camera-work feels like it’s often below water, as the edge of each shot is blurry, presumably also to mirror Sophie’s confused state of mind.
In good company
Surface feels very much in the same universe as Big Little Lies (so it perhaps won’t come as a surprise Reese Witherspoon’s production company is behind the series, and Witherspoon is exec producer), and I don’t know if it’s just me, but with this monied demographic on show, I always find it a little harder to empathise with characters going through crises when they’re clearly millionaires. Rich people have problems too, it sets out to remind us. Just not the same problems as many of us, when it’s cushioned in luxury mansions, a designer wardrobe and millions in the bank.
The slow pace of the eight-part series won’t be for everyone, as some of the revelations take a while to be drawn out. You might also question just how Sophie is able to run the length of San Francisco daily just a few months after almost dying, but it’s easy enough to look past these slight missteps.
While very similar in plot to starry thriller Before I Go To Sleep - a woman with amnesia isn’t sure whether to trust her husband - the series soon sprawls out to be a bigger treasure hunt where the real prize is Sophie’s identity. Without giving too much away, there are intriguing twists throughout the series, and while the ending feels slightly unsatisfactory and ambiguous - not to mention still confusing; although perhaps this is on purpose to keep within the theme - it without doubt opens itself up for a second series. Just don’t forget to remember to tune in.
The first three episodes of Surface streams on Apple TV+ from July 29, followed by weekly episodes.