surface finds solid ground with straight-up storytelling [apple tv+ recap]
★★★☆☆

Will Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) get to the bottom of things? Photo: Apple TV+

Surface, the new Apple TV+ mystery series about a woman who can’t remember her life or lies, keeps up the erotic intrigue this week. The show avoids all of its worst tendencies for a basically good fourth episode.

Amnesiac Sophie and her lover Thomas clandestinely chase leads as they try to solve the mystery of who almost killed her. Sophie’s husband, James, desperately runs around trying to hide his crimes, and Caroline gets pulled back into his orbit once again.

The investigation and the cover-up proceed apace. It’s just a matter of who’s smarter, more thorough and more careful.

Surface recap: ‘Psychogenic’

Season 1, episode 4: Problems just keep piling up for Sophie (played by The Morning Show’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in this week’s episode, entitled “Psychogenic.” She forgot she was sleeping with Thomas Baden (Stephan James), the cop who thinks her husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), tried to kill her and make it look like a suicide attempt.

She thinks he might be onto something because she found out James was sleeping with her best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor). On top of that, James is in trouble for massive fraud at his financial firm. Maybe killing her was his get-out-of-jail-free card for a money problem?

Now Sophie’s reignited her affair with undercover officer Baden, just in time for the financial crimes division to tell him they’re going to look into James’ finances and maybe send him to jail. James told his best friend and co-worker Harrison (François Arnaud) for help but the best he can give him is 48 hours to return the money he embezzled before he tells the heads of the company.

Maybe it’s time to go Altered States

Sophie’s still not at 100%. And it doesn’t help that literally everyone she talks to seems to have a different opinion of her situation, both before and after the accident.

She asks Hannah, her therapist (Marianne Jean Baptiste), for a signature on a form to send her to an experimental clinic, to hopefully regain the fullness of her memory. But Hannah won’t do it … which is a little suspicious, all things considered.

Then Sophie walks into a jewelry store to sell some stuff, and the guy behind the counter knows her, but she doesn’t know him. Anyway, she pawns some of her jewelry to pay for the experimental immersion therapy herself.

While Sophia’s in the sensory-deprivation chamber, James does a little backdoor dealing of his own. He asks Caroline to come to his office and begs her for the $9 million he stole. She can only give him $4 million (???!!!) but that might be enough to keep his head off the chopping block. At bottom, James can show Harrison that he’s serious about returning what he stole.

A cunning plan to sniff out a liar

Sophie is also serious about bringing James down, though. She hatches a plan to figure out how much money he stole so she can feed that information to Baden. First part: Plan a romantic getaway to the place they were married so she can start getting him used to sharing secrets again. (They’ve been frosty toward each other lately, what with her suspecting he tried to kill her and such.)

Baden, meanwhile, shakes down a colleague of James’ named Todd (Andres Joseph) for info on the steal. Seems foolproof that they’ll take down James … but you know what they say about announcing your plans.

Around this time, Hannah tells Sophie that James, her conservator after the accident, called and told the therapist that Sophie sought clandestine help. If she continues down this road without Hannah’s say-so, there will be dire consequences.

Straight-up storytelling FTW

So after a deeply shaky and busy and top-to-bottom unbelievable first three episodes, Surface seems ready to be decent TV. It’s always iffy to start a show with like nine different conceits, because you must establish rules in the most byzantine ways, when you could just be telling the story.

We gotta learn about the exact type of fake amnesia Sophie suffers from. We need to learn about James’ backstabbing and double dealing, and Baden’s real identity and his game, etc., etc., etc. And frankly none of that stuff, despite gauzy cinematography and frenetic editing, was that interesting.

However, most showrunners put up a better batting average when simply doing sexy procedural stuff. A show that talks a big game about memory but has no greater thematic use for that material can really only get better by getting out of its own way.

Surface makes some solid moves this week

This week consisted of nothing more than Baden, James, Sophie and Hannah getting to the bottom of their respective mysteries in risky ways. That’s fun! Nothing wrong with that! There’s even some stuff that finally works (editorially, if not exactly textually) as well as the show thinks it does.

While Sophie communes with her past self in the Altered States-style sensory-deprivation chamber, she has a memory of a sapphic experience. So, to jog it loose, she corners a call girl (Brittany Mitchell) in a hotel bathroom and pays her 300 bucks to kiss her to see if it awakens something in her.

It half works. But that’s a good scene, and it allows Mbatha-Raw to do some actual acting as well as all the reacting that Surface usually seems so content for her to do. There’s still a long climb to “great” but this week’s “good” was better than last week’s “quite, quite bad.”

★★★☆☆

Watch Surface on Apple TV+

New episodes of Surface arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

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