(Note: This review will deliberately be kept fairly spoiler-free other than the basic premise. It was written after watching the first five episodes of Servant, essentially half the first season.)
I’ve been pretty excited for Apple+’s latest series Servant, not just because it’s the second series put together by Philly twist-master M. Night Shyamalan, but also because it’s one of the most original and intriguing premises with the look and feel of the recent “elevated horror” trend in the vein of Hereditary, The Perfection and the movies of Robert Eggers.
The show is based around Philadelphia couple Sean and Dorothy Turner (Toby Kebbell, Lauren Ambrose), who live in a gorgeous Philadelphia townhouse with their baby Jericho, who actually died suddenly months earlier, even though the death was never announced. It turns out that Dorothy has been given a “Reborn Doll” as Transitory Object Therapy to help her deal with the death, but the secret gets harder to keep when Dorothy is ready to go back to work and hires mysterious nanny Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free).
Created and written by Tony Gasgallop, who has written for 24 and Berlin Station, Servant is tough to talk about, just as with anything that Shyamalan is involved with, at least in terms of how far one can go in sharing details from the basic plot. Because of this, I’m going to remain respectful by trying to avoid any major spoilers. There are things you can certainly know that contribute to the series – like the fact that Sean is a professional bon vivant, a consulting chef who creates recipes for local restaurants, while Dorothy is an on-camera news reporter, both of them too busy to keep an eye on Jericho.
The first episode is essentially used to introduce us to the Turners as they get to know Leanne, yet it doesn’t take long for Sean to tell Leann what happened with the real Jericho. Even so, he gets progressively more suspicious of the new nanny as he discovers that she’s deeply religious and even finds creepy totems in her belongings. (It’s particularly fun to see what each of the characters gets up to whenever the other characters are out of the house.) Partway through the first episode, Dorothy’s brother Julian, played by Rupert Grint, shows up and that introduces a whole new dynamic, and that’s the case with other episodes as new people are introduced. The third episode “Eel” is when things start to get particularly fun with the introduction of Spider-Man: Far from Home‘s Tony Revolori as Toby, Sean’s assistant, who immediately takes a liking to Leann, something that might play out down the line.
Servant’s cast is quite fantastic with Lauren Ambrose being so far beyond the teen girl from Six Feet Under. She gives Dorothy a playful and humorous edge as she desperately tries to become close friends with Leann. It’s quite a contrast to Kebbell’s gruff and mostly unpleasant demeanor as Sean drinks heavily and spends as lot of time squabbling with his wife about Leann or Jericho or both. Grint’s Julian is probably the most different from any character we’ve seen from him before, nothing like the huggable but wishy-washy Ron Weasley he played for so many years. The real breakout is Nell Tiger Free, whose performance brings so much to the enigma that is Leanne, seemingly naive and gentle one minute, but clearly having a darker side that’s brought out by working for the Turners.
The mystery of who Leanne is and what she’s up increasingly builds over the first few episodes, but you do wonder for how long this can be maintained. The show remains deliberately vague about whether Leanne is just a religious zealot, an unbalanced killer, a witch, an alien or possibly a combination of all the above? You also wonder who is crazy – the woman who treats a doll as if it’s a real baby, or her husband, who believes the worst in Leann.
Shyamalan directs the pilot himself, setting the general look and tone of the series with lots of close-ups that creates a deeper intimacy with the characters. After that, other directors like Nimrod Antal take over, although Shyamalan also directs the sixth episode, and it’s safe to assume he may pop back in from time to time, since this cast seems too fun to not want to direct them more. Like Hereditary, there’s a dark humor in even the most awful fights, plus there’s a ton of straight-up food porn that’s inherent in Sean’s job. (The episodes are even named after some of his ingredients, like “Eel” and “Cricket,” so you probably shouldn’t watch the series on an empty OR a full stomach.)
Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby and other ‘70s horror films are quite easy to make, yet to me, it’s more like the original Dark Shadows series, a slowly-building drama where every episode creates a new layer of tension to the story. There’s also an aspect of the recent Korean film Parasite in the way that the idle rich treat the “help” – also a theme in Rian Johnson’s excellent Knives Out by the way, so maybe there’s something in the air?
Most television dramas are an hour long, including commercials. Servant’s episodes are a more conservative 30 to 35 minutes, which makes it far easier to watch two or three episodes back to back.
The eerie nature of the series is driven by the music by Trevor Gureckis, which ranges from clanky percussion to odd methods of using strings, adding to the “heightened horror” comparisons, although there aren’t many actual scares as much as the show just keeping you on edge the whole time.
I have no idea where Servant might go in its proposed second, third or later seasons, but it’s as addicting as anything else on regular television these days, and I’m definitely a fan. If anything is going to get people talking about Apple+, Servant is it.
Servant will debut its first three episodes on Apple TV+ November 28, and then add a new episode to the service each Friday starting December 3.