Servant review: Apple TV+, M Night Shyamalan bring you a tale of nanny nightmares and parental horrors
Careful layering of domestic psychodrama, creepy ambiguity, and clue-gathering make Servant the best offering of Apple TV+ so far.
Parenting horror is having a bit of a moment. From Hereditary to A Quiet Place to Pet Sematary, they have all tapped into the fears and anxieties every parent grapples with. Servant, the new series from Apple TV+ and M Night Shyamalan, also draws from the worst nightmares of modern parenthood. Over the course of its 10 episodes, it will however keep you guessing till the very end on what kind of show it is — a drama about parental guilt masquerading as psychological horror or vice versa?
Virtually, the whole first season takes place inside the house of an upper-middle-class couple in Philadelphia. The tension is built in this claustrophobic environment where we are unsure if the threat is or is not real — and if it is, who or what is the threat? The claustrophobia is heightened by the intimacy of extreme close-ups used by Shyamalan, who directs the pilot, and sets the tone and aesthetic for the series.
The couple, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell), hire an au pair named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to help care for their new-born infant, Jericho. Of course, it is a psychological horror series, and nothing is as it seems. In an unsettling scene, Sean picks up Jericho by the legs out of his crib, and carelessly hits the baby's head against the rails. But if you have seen the trailer, you know the baby is actually a lifelike doll to help Dorothy cope with Jericho's death. Sean asks Leanne in confidence to play along as grief had left Dorothy in an almost catatonic stupor. Following the advice of Dorothy's shrink, he and her brother Julian (Rupert Grint) thus decided this "transitory object therapy" is the only way to help her. Intriguingly enough, Leanne is not really disconcerted by this and keeps up the charade: putting the doll to sleep, indulging in baby-talk, and even changing its diaper. But as the pilot ends, there is a more shocking twist that essentially reveals the trailer was a red herring. You are in a Shyamalan production after all. One night, as Sean is working in the kitchen, he hears a cough through the baby monitor, and when he goes up to the nursery, he sees Jericho alive and crying.
The pilot sets up a simple but terrifying premise, and the following episodes — each around 30 minutes long — add more suspenseful elements to the story. At first, you think Dorothy and Sean have internalised their grief to an extent where they are both sharing a delusion. But Julian's entry into the picture confirms they have a living, breathing baby in their midst. From here, it effectively becomes a narrative parlour game of trying to guess each character's motives and secrets before a potential season-ending twist. Did Leanne kidnap another baby that happens to look like Jericho or did she conjure him through some sort of necromancy? Is she a witch or just a religious fanatic? Also, less importantly, were the nanny options really between her and a "lap-dancing Satanist"?
The show derives most of its suspense in its ambiguity by never giving us straightforward answers.
Leanne seems innocent and subservient but when the Turners tick her off, she uses her nightly prayers to cause a little splinter or pimple havoc. But the show adds an air of ambiguity to even its supernatural elements.
Though Dorothy buys Leanne's sweet, innocent small-town-girl act, Sean is distrustful of her from the beginning. He recruits Julian to unearth her background. Suggestions about her identity are teased and scattered throughout the series, alluding to a larger truth. But we do not get the whole truth even in the end, and we might have to wait for future instalments for more clarity. So, throughout the series, you are left wondering which character to root for.
Dorothy draws the most sympathy, as her carefully crafted facade hides a grieving mother that is finding it harder and harder to keep up the delusion. Lauren Ambrose sells every false smile and blank stare with creepy aplomb. Sean, on the other hand, is unlikable from the beginning. He condescends Leanne for reading magazines ("Oh, that's technically reading"), and when she tells him her goal in life is "to be happily married and raise children of my own someday", he turns to his wife and says, "See darling, for some people, that is enough." He is the kind of guy who pretends to be secular but is, in fact, an evangelical atheist dismissive of any religious belief. His hypercritical nature stems from his own low self-esteem because he secretly feels emasculated that his wife is the breadwinner in the family. But you do start to warm up to him a little as the series progresses as Toby Kebbell lends the disagreeable a**hole an additional layer of moral complexity.
You are not quite sure what to make of Leanne because the showrunners have intended it that way but Nell Tiger Free's unblinking eyes and expressionless face dial the creep to 11. Grint makes the regular visit to fulfill his brotherly duties, and also makes a compelling case for a more prolific acting career.
Servant mines its dread from its claustrophobic setting, and the slow burn acts as its own payoff, and nothing more. But there is a ton of tension to relish upon in the many dinners hosted by the Turners as they and their guests pretend like everything is perfectly normal. Meanwhile, the kitchen becomes a scene of a different kind of horror as Sean's consulting chef work sees him peel the skin off an eel, boil lobsters alive, and even make placenta croquembouches.
As the season ends, you expect some of the loose ends tied up, and at least some of your big questions answered. But Servant offers a resolution that leaves you neither satisfied nor wanting more, like most Shyamalan projects in recent years. Though the show is well-made and cleverly written by creator Tony Basgallop, it eventually turns into an exercise in narrative withholding that is more head-scratching than hair-raising. It, however, rises above enough conventions with careful layering of domestic psychodrama, creepy ambiguity, and clue-gathering to make it the best offering of Apple TV+ so far.
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