I’ve got a surefire way to enjoy Servant, the new M. Night Shyamalan-backed series premiering with three episodes Thanksgiving Day on Apple TV+.
As you probably know, Mr. Shyamalan’s brand is spooky and magical and weird, with some major reveal point popping up that you weren’t quite expecting. Servant ticks all those boxes. Lauren Ambrose plays Dorothy, a beloved TV reporter in Philly who becomes catatonic when her infant child Jericho dies. To get her life and career kick-started again, she’s given a therapy doll that can help her transition to life post-Jericho. Except she starts calling the doll Jericho and becomes so enamored that she persuades her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) to get a nanny … for the doll.
The nanny shows up. Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) is from rural Wisconsin, a devout Catholic and 18. And let’s just say that hiring her to care for a balding baby doll is the most normal thing that happens in the first three episodes. The second most normal thing? In the third episode, Sean — who runs some kind of culinary business out of the couple’s home — nails an eel to a butcher block. Whereupon Leanne faints.
Aside from that, the rest of Servant’s first hour and a half is an almost uninterrupted melange of bizarro turns interrupted by stretches of discordantly bright, clever dialogue. As the title suggests, Leanne (the “servant”) is the catalyst for most of the creepiness in the show, despite her fairly low-key presence in the first hour and a half. Leanne’s employers respond to her in completely different ways. One finds her right as rain, while the other is convinced she’s a demon from Hell. One of them has got to be wrong, insanely wrong. But which one?
Servant doesn’t entirely tip its hand early on. The couple spends a lot of time being an ordinary couple, pausing their descent into madness while Dorothy reports a breaking news story and Sean uncorks a nice red. But these plebeian moments of domestic life are taking place in a psychological hothouse where it seems one person has lost their mind, and the other one may not be far behind.
Servant was filmed on a single set — the townhouse where Dorothy and Sean live. It’s a big house for just three adults, but as things start to go off the rails, the slow, probing camera made me feel like the tall ceilings were closing in.
Hmmm, let’s see: Tight, claustrophobic horror story centered on a single family where sanity is in short supply, shot in one building with lots of long tracking shots — sounds a lot like the Stanley Kubrick-directed version of The Shining, doesn’t it? And the original Shining, I would remind you, was hilarious.
Which brings me to my viewing tip. Speaking at a Comic-Con this fall, Shyamalan said he bit on Servant — it was pitched to him by British television writer Tony Basgallop, who wrote all the Season 1 episodes — because, Shyamalan said, “that premise is so tragic and weird and scary, but it’s also oddly and inappropriately funny.”
Is it? Having watched the three episodes that premiere this week, I found nothing “inappropriately” funny about it. In fact, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to find the whole show kind of a hoot, from the goofy couples’ banter to the stock creepshow music to the constant non sequiturs, even the touching of private parts. Oh yes, private parts get touched, more than once.
All of this works better if you watch it as a comedy or whatever genre bucket you think Shyamalan belongs in. Indeed, if you try to watch Servant as a horror show, or a suspenseful thriller, I think you’ll be disappointed and even a bit bored. Basgallop has done yeoman’s work developing a professional life and saucy married life for Dorothy and Sean. Dorothy is whisked to work in a town car, and files live reports that are kind of riveting. Just like she did in Six Feet Under, Ambrose gear-shifts effortlessly between bereft mother, emotionally detached spouse and this big-eyed public persona Basgallop’s given her. (It’s apparent that the Brit has spent some time studying local American TV news style.) Along with Sean’s donning chef’s gear to skewer an eel, these backstories add a measure of normality and fun that are normally missing from the horror genre. And frankly, without them the first three episodes of Servant would be intolerable.
It’s possible that later episodes will explore the psychological journeys of Dorothy and Sean, both of whom clearly had their worlds upended by the crushing loss of their firstborn. But clearly Servant wants us to get invested in the lives of these mixed-up kids. For good measure, there’s a fourth regular in the cast, Dorothy’s brother Julian, played by Rupert Grint (yep, Weasley’s all growed up). He gets sucked into the nanny drama but keeps one foot in the outside world, and tosses off some of the best lines in the show. Also, Grint looks so much like a young Boris Becker that I keep imagining him in tennis shorts. Like I say, it’s a funny show.
Whether Servant can deliver on this promising start, only time will tell. As Apple TV+ is not in the season-dumping business (yet), a new episode of Servant will air each Friday beginning Dec. 6.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.