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What to watch this week: Glorified soap leaves you fuzzy – and for all the wrong reasons

Chris Wasser on what to stream this week… 

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Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as husband and wife in Surface on AppleTV

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as husband and wife in Surface on AppleTV

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as husband and wife in Surface on AppleTV

Do not adjust your television screens. Surface (Apple TV+) is intentionally fuzzy around the edges. I think it has something to do with how the main character, Sophie, is struggling to remember her past. Hence, everything in Sophie’s life — everything around her, in fact — is literally a blur. A clever motif, I guess. After a while, however, it starts to look like the director of photography has fallen asleep on the job.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is our puzzled protagonist, a 30-something San Francisco woman who suffered a traumatic head injury following an alleged suicide attempt. Hence the extreme memory loss. Fortunately, her therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is here to provide an excruciating reminder of what happened.

“You jumped off a boat into the middle of the f***ing ocean,” says Hannah, whose bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. “Tell me, what’s so wrong with your situation? You have a beautiful home, friends, a husband who wants to love you…”

A sensationally tone-deaf start, then. Anyway, Surface isn’t just intentionally fuzzy — it is, as far as I can tell, intentionally silly too. Obviously, Sophie didn’t just fall from a boat — she was pushed. Obviously, husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, piling on the sneaky eyes) tried to kill her. Obviously, her best bud Caroline (Ari Graynor, likewise) is in on it.

There is a scene towards the end of the second episode where Sophie overhears a panicky telephone call between them. Caroline, who’s worried about Sophie remembering things she shouldn’t, reminds James that they need to get their stories straight. Dum, dum, DUM!
There is more. Back before she forgot who she was, Sophie was having an affair with a handsome police officer named Baden (Stephan James), who has now taken it upon himself to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding her accident. Oh, and James is mega rich. He’s also an abusive twit who may have been involved in some dodgy shenanigans before he pushed his wife off a ferry. Assuming, of course, that James is the wannabe murderer.

Listen, there are eight episodes of this thing (the first three premiered yesterday, the rest arrive in weekly instalments) so I am tempted to convince myself that it might surprise me. And that talent sheet is mighty impressive. High Fidelity’s Veronica West created Surface. Reese Witherspoon produces it. Mbatha-Raw is a bit of a superstar — she is the only one who almost makes this soapy and curiously sleepy thriller watchable. Wake me up for the finale, maybe.

Elsewhere, prestige telly disappears up its own backside in the ambitious yet ultimately heavy-handed true-crime saga Under the Banner of Heaven (Disney+).
Andrew Garfield wears his best detective face as Jeb Pyre, a devout Mormon and dedicated officer of the law, investigating a brutal double murder in 1980s Utah.

A woman and her child are butchered in their own home. All signs point towards the husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), who returns to the crime scene covered in blood. Allen claims his innocence, and you know what? He might be telling the truth.

Back in the police station, our blubbering suspect begins a wild and bumpy round of storytelling, giving Pyre, his no-nonsense partner Bill Taba (a superb Gil Birmingham) and, indeed, the audience, a scenic tour of his tumultuous family history (the Laffertys are like Mormon royalty in this town) as well as that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There are detailed flashbacks, too, of how Allen’s late wife Brenda (an excellent Daisy Edgar-Jones) caused upset and outrage in the Lafferty clan. Things get weird.

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Developed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — and based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book of the same name — Under the Banner of Heaven arms itself with an incredible true story and an impeccable cast. Trouble is, it never shuts up, and there is far too much going on in it.

The Garfield and Birmingham detective stuff is fine — less so, the creaky historical re-enactments of how religious leader Joseph Smith founded his controversial church. A wobbly endeavour, then.

Finally, a word on Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman’s Uncoupled (Netflix), a rigid romcom in desperate need of some jokes. Neil Patrick Harris is Michael, a heartbroken New York real estate agent whose partner Colin (Tuc Watkins) gives up on their relationship after 17 years.
Michael is initially determined to fix things, but eventually realises that Colin has already moved on. It’s a good thing he has a tempestuous new client (Marcia Gay Harden’s Claire) to keep him occupied. Claire’s husband left her — do we think that she and Michael will end up best buds? Absolutely. Are we inclined to stick around to see the madness unfold? Probably not. Predictable, unimaginative froth.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

 

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