Are you seeing this?
— Dr. Laura Daugherty (Lake Bell)
Surface is all about the lurk. The dark, portentous menace of something not quite seen. In the pilot episode, this effect permeates most every scene. The imminent peril is barely glimpsed by the camera, as the series deploys that oldest trick in the horror movie book, to keep the threat obscure so as to allow viewers’ imaginations to run wild. Nothing on screen, Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper are fond of saying, is so scary as what you might conjure up in your own head.
Put most pithily, Surface lifts from Lost, or rather, it brings a version of that series’ ominous and unknown force home. The thing — deemed a “sea monster” by a couple of early witnesses — comes from beneath the sea. It wooshes by drunken divers, freckle-faced kids in boats, an earnest scientist in a state-of-the-art submersible, leaving behind the impression of unbelievable size and a blare of light, not to mention the expected horror. Just so, the child who first spots it, Miles (Carter Jenkins), is in the night water, while his pink-bikinied slightly older sister Savannah (Leighton Meester) parties with friends on boat. Before you can say “Jaws,” the thing is slipping through the water and Miles’ face — held in slow zoom — turns tentative and poignant with fear.
The Wilmington, North Carolina Coast Guard comes by to break up the teens’ shenanigans (“Do you know what zero tolerance means?”) and Miles is oh-so-grounded: “Straight home after school,” grumps dad, as he adjusts his tie the next morning. He glares at Miles, who’s already sitting in front of his computer screen. “You’re in the doghouse, my friend. Today begins a new regime.” (The scene introduces another sort of lurk, parental and ludicrous: who calls his son “my friend”?) Miles, no surprise, is the Elliot-ish sort, undeterred by adults telling him he can’t IM his friends for six weeks. He and his buddy are out and about that very night, fishing for signs of the “sea monster” he’s looked up on the internet.
At the same time, the series is setting up other sightings, suggesting that the threat is not localized, but pervasive and so, especially ooky. (Josh Pate, who’s created and written the series with brother Jonas, calls it “a sci-fi, serialized Dickens action novel.”) Each site is its own island of misinformation and obfuscation, each another version of the Pennsylvania farmhouse in Signs: isolated, unprepared, and willfully ignorant, easily unnerved by what can’t be seen. The metaphor isn’t hard to spot — the sea monster is another word for terrorism, or maybe weather.
Some folks seem better equipped emotionally than others. A couple of amateur fisherman go diving one night off a Gulf of Mexico oil rig, whereupon one meets a scary, wet, and very dark-blue-tinted fate while the other watches, his scuba-masked face pained and already suggesting his impending survivor’s guilt. Poor Rich (Jay R. Ferguson). Not even his wife quite gets why he’s so obsessed with a tv news story about a “sperm whale” found dead and beached on Sullivan’s Island, North Carolina. “It’s Moby Dick,” chortles a gritty local on camera, laying “great literature” references on top of all the other types the show has going on.
The least upsettable and thus, the most central character in sight — and being visible is important in this murky, derivative environment — is the scientist in the submersible, Dr. Laura Daugherty (Lake Bell). She registers the appropriate fear and concern as she peers through the Mystic’s porthole, the camera spinning with her as the sea monster (or its attendant eerie wave-forces) send the Mystic turning round and round in a deep undersea rush. Scared by what she’s seen and not seen, Dee tells her gently grizzly mentor, Barry (Court Young), that it “could be what we’ve been working for, a higher mammalian species.”
Little do they know that an evil government assembly is already mounting an X-Files-ish shutdown on the Monterey Oceanographic Institute where Dee and Barry work (whether “for” this mammalian discovery or not). Could it be any more odious than having the primary ballbuster, evolutionary biologist Aleksander Cirko (Rade Serbedzija), first appear in a face-hiding parka amid snow and ice on the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan? As he tries to debrief Dee on what she saw below, he informs her that the “facility is now under the jurisdiction of U.S. Armed Forces.”
Dee’s a bit of a tough nut herself, however (introduced as she’s convincing her young son to pack to go to his dad’s [they’re separated] by threatening to cut the ear of his beloved stuffed alien, “Melvin”), and won’t back down from this heavily accented and obvious villain. “I was the one that saw it, alone, at 5000 feet,” she declares. And not only that, she’s got an ace up her sleeve. When the arrogant, ultra-privileged Aleks suggests he can “empathize” with her resentment and proprietary feelings, Dee tells her story in brief: she had a child at 21 and worked her way through school waiting tables. “We are not on the same planet, so don’t try to empathize with me.” Ah yes, sneers the definitively unempathetic Aleks. “Life isn’t fair.”
Such moments underline the other ideas roiling around in Surface, apart from the basic jump scenes, fancy production values, and contentions that government can’t be trusted. In its concern with what can and can’t be seen — by high-techy instruments and well-trained researchers, as well as curious kids and pissed-off locals, the series makes a general case for self-possession and aggressive skepticism. You need to do your own recon, not to mention research and prep. It’s not just that authorities won’t look out for you, it’s that they mean to do you harm in order to pursue their own interests. It’s not news — Alien never seems to go out of style — but it’s not irrelevant either.
It helps that Bell is able to suggest complexity, emotional and moral, even when the dialogue fails her. When Barry warns Dee, about to submerge some 5000 feet, that she needs to “pay attention down there,” she doesn’t even look back at him as she descends into the Mystic: “I was born paying attention,” Dee says. This poise doesn’t explain why she is the “one” who sees the monster in her submersible, and it doesn’t much help her with the clichés coming at her a mile a minute, drawn from melodrama (single momness) as well as scary movies. But still: the pilot suggests that Dee brings her own sort of charisma and cockiness to the series’ mundane table. Maybe she’ll see her way out.