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In 2017, HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies furthered the appeal of the traditional whodunnit by enticing viewers into the uber-private bosom of the privileged American neo-WASP. The show ushered in a new era for the sleek, elevated psychological TV thriller, opening the floodgates to a vast offering of not only whodunnits but howdunnits and whydunnits.
It’s no surprise, then, to see Reese Witherspoon, one of that show’s stars, attached as an executive producer on Surface. Apple TV+’s newest venture feasts on the cogs and gears of Big Little Lies while regurgitating tropes from other recent successes such as Netflix’s stalker suspense You (2018–) and David Fincher’s twist banquet Gone Girl (2014) to create a Frankenstein’s monster that masquerades as a neatly packaged erotic thriller.
The three corners of the central love triangle comprise Sophie Ellis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, also an executive producer), whose recent attempt at ending her life succeeded only in ending the life she once knew; her husband, handsome hedge-fund manager James Ellis (Oliver Jackson-Cohen in his most interesting performance to date); and Sophie’s onetime lover, mysterious police officer Baden (Stephan James).
For a show sold as a sexy psychological thriller, Surface is as deprived of sensuality as it is of suspense. The two men predictably spiral while fumblingly attempting to charm Sophie by one-upping one another (“Who do you believe, Soph, me or him?” shouts a crumbling Baden as James desperately grasps at the notion of his wife’s amnesia being the couple’s “second chance”). Sex is key to the characters’ motivations, yet the show treats it as an afterthought, the steaminess of hot showers failing to conceal the frigidity of the encounters, the characters mere pawns of a script that’s woefully ill-equipped to highlight the quality of the cast.
Showrunner Veronica West (High Fidelity) gives the married couple his-and-hers sidekicks in the form of preppy Caroline (Ari Graynor) and finance-bro cliché Harrison (Francois Arnaud), who seem surplus to requirements. Sam Miller, of I May Destroy You fame, directs four of the eight episodes but is plagued by the same scripting trouble: the narrative hoop-jumping required to bring out even a sliver of subtext, which ends up dissipated anyway by overexposure.
The show’s saving grace lies in its polished costume and production design. Sophie’s wardrobe is one of Surface’s most fully formed characters, and the Ellis’ lavish townhouse a fitting reflection of the protagonist’s vapidity. Alas, it lands as the plump cherry atop a dry cake: pleasant, but powerless to justify the indulgence.
► Surface is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.