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Apple TV Plus’ new thriller Surface keeps you completely in the dark

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The first three episodes are nothing but question marks

Surface
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Oliver Jackson-Cohen in Surface.
Image: Apple

While Apple TV Plus is probably best known for its comfort food comedies and big-budget genre swings, the streaming service has also steadily built up a lineup of very intense thrillers. The latest is Surface — not to be confused with Suspicion, Severance, or Servant, also available on the service — which takes the idea of a mystery to its most extreme conclusion. The early episodes are almost entirely made up of questions and misdirection. I can’t even tell if the show is even any good at this point — but I know I need to keep watching to find out.

Surface is centered on Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who you might remember from Loki, Doctor Who, and the best episode of Black Mirror), five months removed from an accident that caused near-complete amnesia. She has no memory of who she is or the people around her and is trying to piece together her life based on all kinds of clues: old phone messages, medical and financial records, brief flashes of dreams or memories, and the various things her friends and family tell her.

The core mystery, at least initially, has to do with Sophie’s accident. It’s treated as a suicide attempt, with Sophie apparently jumping off of a boat in the middle of nowhere yet miraculously surviving. But almost immediately, she begins to doubt what happened. For starters, her life seems pretty idyllic, with some close friends, a big house, and a well-off husband (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), so she doesn’t understand why her past self would want to leave it all. She becomes suspicious pretty quickly. It starts out as small feelings — supposed friends she doesn’t connect with, clothes that don’t seem to fit right — but mostly, it’s because nearly everyone in her life is obviously lying to her.

The main suspect is her husband, James, who shifts from doting partner to obsessive, manipulative creep — and as anyone who has seen The Haunting of Bly Manor knows, Jackson-Cohen is very good at playing an obsessive, manipulative creep. But there’s also the detective assigned to her case who won’t leave her alone, her unnaturally peppy bestie who is clearly hiding things, and even her therapist, who is intent on reminding Sophie that her memories are never, ever coming back. Given her lack of existing memory, parsing what’s actually true and who she can trust is a nearly impossible task.

There’s not much about the show or this concept that’s original. Hell, there’s even a scene where Sophie follows the address on a matchbook she stumbles across. But Surface attempts to make up for its lack of originality by 1) being very stylish and fun to look at and 2) piling on the mysteries to an almost overwhelming degree. The first three episodes feature almost zero answers. Instead, you’re constantly being introduced to new twists in Sophie’s life; even when it seems like a mystery is solved, the answer only brings new questions.

Of course, this is all well and good for getting viewers hooked. It has certainly worked for me so far. It helps that both Mbatha-Raw and Jackson-Cohen are extremely good at ratcheting up the tension. (If you’re looking for something to calm your nerves afterward, I’d recommend watching Maya Rudolph have lots of fun in Apple TV Plus’ Loot, the only good show about billionaires.) But there’s no real sense of where Surface is going at this point, and there’s only so long that questions can sustain a show — that’s true no matter how creepy the main suspect is.

The first three episodes of Surface are streaming on Apple TV Plus on July 29th, with the rest of the eight-episode series releasing weekly.