Fantastic concepts about strange underwater creatures must toe a delicate line or risk toppling into silliness, and this splashy NBC drama takes that plunge in its very busy premiere. Filled with riffs seemingly lifted out of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and any number of other Spielberg films, “Surface” actually appears well-positioned to do some business in this timeslot, but if the opener is any indication, this handsome, globetrotting series is going to have a difficult time avoiding a gradual descent into the abyss.
It’s hard to take a bad shot of Lake Bell, but the show does what it can to diminish her considerable charms by saddling her with a kid (yep, she’s a hard-working-scientist single mom) and then shoving her into a submarine.
Bell’s Laura Daughtery is a marine biologist studying the hot-vent ecosystem, which, she theorizes, is the origin of life on the planet. Shades of “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” Laura sees something very big and greenish (no, it’s not the Hulk) in the water.
After excitedly describing her sort-of discovery as possibly being “a higher mammalian species,” pretty soon faceless military types intrude, and Laura is whisked away to be interrogated by a thickly accented Dr. Cirko (Rade Sherbedgia) and his sidekick. If you’re not thinking of Richard Dreyfuss yet, Laura proceeds to quote his “Close Encounters” character directly by asking, “Who are you people?”
Still, that’s just one of “Surface’s” whirling blades, which include a teenage kid (Carter Jenkins) who, in maybe the dumbest moment in a new show this season, finds what appears to be a water-alien egg and plops the thing in his mom’s fish tank. The glass breaks, there’s some sloppy scurrying, and by show’s end it’s still not clear whether it’s E.T. in the closet or a hyperactive guppy.
A third strand involves a diver (Jay R. Ferguson) who also witnesses the vague outline of something in the surf, causing a rift with his disbelieving wife and leading him to begin pursuing his own answers.
Originally burdened with the equally inexplicable title “Fathom,” producers/real-life brothers Jonah and Josh Pate have crafted a series as wishy-washy as its moniker — borrowing from the best, admittedly, but a little too freely to feel remotely fresh. And while there are some intriguing underwater effects (though it’s never clear what they’re showing) in the no-doubt front-loaded pilot, the show offers scant sense of where it hopes to make land.
The best thing about “Surface” thus far is NBC’s promo campaign, which, sliced into bite-sized bits, actually makes the program look considerably better than it is.
Even so, “Surface” should have a shot at being sampled, and the first hour leaves so many loose ends floating around it just might reel in a fair number of viewers to at least take a second look. A few more moments like that egg in the fish tank, though, and “Surface” has very little chance of hooking an audience for long, unless it’s repositioned as the high-spirited comedy that NBC has been seeking.