Review: “Servant” Serves Up Atmosphere, But Not Much Else

Servant Nell Tiger Free in Servant (Apple, Inc.)

Apple TV+ adds another just okay series to its lineup, psychological horror produced by M. Night Shyamalan.

God bless ‘em, Apple TV+ is trying. Ir doesn’t seem like that many people are watching, but they’re trying. With the five new shows that premiered when the streaming service went live at the beginning of the month, there’s something meant to appeal to everyone’s taste. You want prestige drama? There’s The Morning Show. Maybe some science fiction? Perhaps you might be interested in See. What about a period piece? Well, they’ve got you covered with Dickinson. There’s even something for the kids, with the brand new Peanuts cartoon Snoopy in Space.

Unfortunately, they’re not doing much of it very well. While Apple TV+ certainly can boast a versatile range of themes in its programming, some genuine talent both in front of and behind the camera, and extravagant production values, there’s a disappointing thread of mediocrity running through each show. Their decision to make only the first three episodes available right away, followed by parceling out the rest week by week only makes that more apparent. None of what the channel is offering so far is “appointment television,” and neither is Servant, psychological horror executive produced (and occasionally directed) by M. Night Shyamalan.

Servant takes what would be an interesting premise for a ninety-minute movie and stretches it out to a rather more punishing five hours. Not much happens during the first three episodes available for review, and while a little time to develop a sense of mood and menace can work well in horror (see The Shining), here it just feels like padding, when it’s not resembling an advertisement for upscale Philadelphia real estate. You won’t come away from Servant scared, but you might just envy the characters’ comically enormous kitchen.

Toby Kebbell in “Servant,” premiering November 28 on Apple TV+.

The premiere episode opens as Sean and Dorothy Turner (played by Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose) await the arrival of Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), who flies all the way from Wisconsin to be their live-in nanny, for the princely sum of $900 per month (for those keeping track, that’s far below minimum wage, for a couple whose townhouse looks like it was lifted directly from the pages of Architectural Digest). Leanne gives off major creep vibes the minute she walks through the Turners’ front door, but only Sean seems to notice. She has no hobbies, no interests, and barely speaks. Her blank stare and affectless voice suggest someone who’s suffered a very recent trauma, and yet this is evidently the best candidate the Turners could find to take care of their child. 

As it turns out, however, Leanne is a perfect fit for the Turners’ unique situation. Jericho, the baby she’s been tasked with looking after, is a doll. The real Jericho died six weeks earlier, and the doll is supposed to help Dorothy process her grief, although considering she treats it like a living, breathing child, it doesn’t seem to be doing her much good. Unlike Sean, who picks up the doll by one leg and lets its head hit the side of the crib, Leanne plays right into it. In fact, the only time she acts like a normal person is when she takes care of Jericho, although “normal” in this situation is relative.

Leanne isn’t in the house even one night before she’s leaving rustic wooden crosses in Jericho’s bedroom, much to Sean’s dismay. He barely has time to process that before discovering the next day that Jericho has been replaced: by a real baby. Curiously, Dorothy doesn’t seem to notice the difference, nor does she seem concerned by Sean mysteriously getting splinters in nearly every part of his body (including down his throat, in one scene), or losing his ability to taste anything (a major inconvenience considering he’s a professional chef). 

Though there’s a seed of an interesting idea in Servant, it’s weighed down by a checklist of tiresome horror cliches.

Dorothy is in her own little fugue state, occasionally lapsing into catatonia, though whether that has to do with the arrival of the real baby is unknown. The show broadly hints that Dorothy’s mental health, despite her being a successful TV reporter, is precarious at best. Showing some questionable judgment, Sean opts to simply not tell her that there’s a strange baby in their house, working with his smug brother-in-law (Rupert Grint) to keep it a secret, while trying to find out who Leanne really is.

Though there’s a seed of an interesting idea in Servant, it’s weighed down by a checklist of tiresome horror cliches. Screechy, discordant score? Check. Spooky religious imagery? Check. Menacing fakeouts? Check and check. Please, Hollywood, I beg you, no more sinister nannies. Because the plot is spread thin over ten episodes, and virtually all the action so far takes place in Sean and Dorothy’s house, there’s a lot of extraneous filler, like numerous scenes of Sean cooking, and a puzzling focus on his vast wine collection. Perhaps the incessant shots of characters getting wine from the basement, talking about wine, pouring wine, and drinking wine will come to mean something, but at the moment, three episodes in, it’s starting to feel a bit like the show is running in place.

Like a lot of horror movies, Servant suffers from a dearth of characters worth giving one single damn about. We get no sense of what Sean and Dorothy were like before Jericho died, and all we know of them now is that they absolutely despise each other. These two don’t seem like they have could have gotten through a single date together, let alone marry and have a child. Granted, it’s not uncommon for couples to divorce after the death of a child, but there’s a distinct undercurrent of hatred in their interactions, which makes Sean’s decision to not run screaming out of the house as soon as the baby shows up all the more baffling. If the season doesn’t end with Dorothy plunging a knife into his chest, it’ll be a surprise.

That being said, Servant does build a nice sense of claustrophobia, and it plays around, albeit tentatively, with the idea of trauma, and how the tricks our brains play on us to “help” deal with it aren’t always that helpful. Lauren Ambrose as Dorothy is more unsettling than any mysterious religious freak nanny, with a dead-eyed, phony “we must keep up appearances, darling” grin so big it threatens to split her face in half. Whether she ends up as victim, villain, or something else is unclear, but if there’s one thing that might make it worth coming back to Servant week after week, it’s finding out.

Servant comes calling on Apple TV+ beginning November 28th

Servant Trailer:

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