When you name a thriller Beneath the Surface, you better be able to back it up. This eight-part German series lives up to its title and then some. Part mystery – that may or may not involve murder – part family drama, each episode is told from the point of view of a different character as we try to piece together a tangled web of secrets and lies.
At first it seems straightforward: one tragic accident shatters eight people's lives. But on this island off the Danish coast, nothing is as simple as it seems.
For the past twenty years, two families have created their own tiny paradise. Living together in harmony (and in a designer dream house) by themselves on a small island in the Flensburg Fjord, they look like the perfect advertisement for blended living.
Bernd Kuster (Jan Josef Liefers from The Baader-Meinhof Complex) and his wife Sabine (Katharina Schüttler) together with their two children Karl (Anton Petzold) and Kjell (Lukas Zumbrock) are one half of the island's dream team. Bernd runs an architecture firm with Charlie Jensen (Lene Maria Christensen), who is married to Jakob (Thure Lindhardt, from The Bridge). They also have two children, Cecile (Milena Tscharntke) and Emile (Oskar Belton).
Bernd and Charlie's firm is about to land a big contract, which is keeping them on the edge. Their partners are more focused on the artistic side of life; Sabine is a dance teacher (who gives Cecile and Kjell lessons), and Jakob is an artist and house husband. Isolated but just a short boat trip from the Danish mainland, the island is an idyllic haven where their teenage children can roam free and pledge their allegiance to each other Three Musketeers style while their parents hang out. What could possibly go wrong?
To be fair, it's extremely clear right from the start something grim is going to happen. The island might be a dream escape for the two families, but Beneath the Surface is much more interested in establishing and building on an ominous tone than it is showing families having fun in the sun. It's a tense watch, and the more we find out the darker it gets.
A sailing trip is where it all starts to unravel. One of the children is lost overboard in the dark, and while nobody seems to know exactly what happened (he was sleeping on the deck due to a headache), soon fingers are being pointed. Tensions were already rising on the island with the surprise reappearance of Jakob's brother Jonas (Jacob Cedergren), whose return threatens to dredge up a violent past both brothers would rather keep buried. Not that the kids know that – they're more excited about Uncle Jonas' bar.
That's not the only secret threatening the island's tranquillity. Bernd and Charlie's big contract comes with a requirement to relocate to New York, which they've been keeping from their families. When a joint sailing trip is suggested, Bernd and Sabine decide to stay behind and get some alone time. The first episode is told from Sabine's point of view, so at first we only hear about what happened on the trip second hand; the rest of the series brings us slowly but surely towards the truth.
The way the series shifts focus each episode means we see a number of pivotal scenes multiple times. Each time we return to a moment we're seeing it from a new perspective, gathering new pieces of the puzzle. The loss of a child rapidly exposes fractures in the group, and the web of relationships across the island is more complicated than it seems. It's a soap opera's worth of backstabbing… only there may have been actual stabbing involved.
Jakob and Sabine seem to have a connection beyond friendship, while Bernd's professional dreams run counter to his wife's desire to commit to the island forever. The teens aren't free of secrets either. Some are interested in taking their relationships beyond the platonic, while grief has Cecile turning to drugs and Karl's autism puts yet another spin on things.
Things will never be the same for these two families. But was their dream ever real in the first place?
Beneath the Surface premieres at 10.55pm on SBS, Monday 28 March. Episodes air weekly. The eight-part series is also streaming at SBS On Demand.