servant review

“What happened?” is a frequently asked question in Servant, the latest addition to nascent streaming service Apple TV+. Mystery is the name of the game here, with the series – and its characters – playing things maddeningly close to the vest. That the show boasts the input of M. Night Shyamalan we’re conditioned to believe all this mystery and secrecy is building towards a big whopper of a twist.

And indeed, there are plenty of twists and turns in nearly every episode. But more often than not, Servant‘s obtuse nature is frustrating, and you can’t help get the feeling that the show is only being vague for the sake of being vague. This isn’t some trip into an impenetrable David Lynch landscape. It’s just a sturdy, spooky show trying to disguise the fact that it has nothing much to say.

As Apple TV+ struggles to find its footage, here comes Servant, a spooky new series created by Tony Basgallop and produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who also helms some episodes. The first thing you notice while watching the series – which debuts on Apple TV+ Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2019 – is how atmospheric and stylish it is. Every inch of every frame is populated with props and set dressing that looks pulled from a Pottery Barn catalog. And, thanks to cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, its all smothered and choked in darkness and shadow, and lots of somber, autumnal browns. The visual aesthetic of the show radiates both luxury and menace, and you could get lost obsessing over the details.

The second thing you notice is how odd everyone is behaving. The show is very self-contained, and only features a smattering of characters. And none of these characters are behaving naturally. Part of it has to do with trauma. And part of it has to do with the show’s inability to give us rich, rounded individuals to care about. Here is a series that feels built entirely around the Idiot Plot, described by Roger Ebert as ” Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” The characters on Servant are so obsessed with secrets and lies that you begin to realize if everyone would just stop acting like an idiot and talk to each other, they’d probably be able to sort things out.

Servant introduces us to the Turners. Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) is a fancy, high-class chef prone to whipping up exotic meals that look like deleted scenes from Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Sean’s wife Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) is a local TV news reporter. The couple inhabits an ominous brownstone house in a Philadelphia where it always seems to be pouring rain.

The Turners are in need of assistance with their newborn baby Jericho. Enter Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), a shy, quiet 18-year-old who lands a job as the Turner’s live-in nanny. There’s something off about Leanne, and Sean spots it immediately. Of course, there’s something off about the Turners, too: their baby is dead. Jericho’s death is not a secret – it’s been given away in all the advertisements for the show. And at first, Servant looks as if it’s going to be drawing inspiration from the low-rent horror film The Boy. Because while Jericho may be dead, the Turners have a replacement – a creepy Reborn Doll, which looks sort of real while also clearly being fake.

Sean is well aware that the doll isn’t Jericho, but Dorothy, having suffered a mental breakdown following the death of her child, has entered into an elaborate delusion where she thinks the doll is alive. All of this info is revealed in the first episode, and it’s an attention-grabbing start, to be sure. We can’t quite figure out what is going on here – is Leanne up to no good? Are the Turners crazy? And just what happened to the real baby Jericho?

Servant has trouble juggling all of these threads. Dorothy’s mental state should be a much bigger focus of the series, but she mostly takes a backseat to the rude Sean. Because the entire premise of the show hinges on Dorothy being psychologically out of the loop, Servant never lets us get close enough to care much about her. Ambrose still manages to create a memorable character, leaning into Dorothy’s haughty, perfectly enunciated TV anchor inflection. Kebbell is good as well, although the script requires him to be incredibly unlikable from start to finish.

And what of Leanne? Free plays up the character’s timidness, but like Dorothy, we can never get a read on her. It becomes obvious that something is amiss with Leanne, and that fact is underlined when her hulking, scary uncle (Boris McGiver) shows up announced. But because the entire thrust of the series relies on keeping Leanne’s true nature in the dark, Free is forced to play her as constantly aloof and maddeningly mysterious. The secrecy gets so convoluted that we’re stuck with multiple scenes where Sean asks Leanne a direct question that might get to the bottom of things, and she doesn’t respond at all, choosing instead to stare at him silently.

None of this is to say Servant is without its merits. The series is quite good at conjuring up scary moments – it’s a slow-burn type of horror, where you feel the dread creeping into your bones like damp weather. The episodes helmed by Shyamalan are particularly adept at building up anxiety, full of long takes and slow zooms that crawl down dimly lit hallways towards rooms better left locked up. Rupert Grint is a highlight as well, playing Dorothy’s impeccably dressed brother. But all that damned mystery hangs over it all, spoiling what could’ve been a strong new horror series. But the umpteenth time someone asks, “What happened?”, you might find yourself realizing you don’t care about the answer anymore.

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