Apple TV+ Original Show ‘Servant’ Delivers Shyamalanian Twists

As unsettling and head-scratching as "Servant" can be, it’s a fun watch, especially with its setting and character constraints.

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click to enlarge Nell Tiger Free as Leanne in "Servant" - Courtesy of Apple
Courtesy of Apple
Nell Tiger Free as Leanne in "Servant"

Creepy dolls, vulnerable babysitters and haunting homes with a life of their own are all staples of the horror genre — and pretty played-out ones at that. But Apple TV+’s Servant — from creator/writer Tony Basgallop and the king of supernatural twisty fare, M. Night Shyamalan — expertly blends the quintessentially spooky elements of the genre with all-too-real horrors, like losing a loved one or your mind. 

Servant opens with a couple, Dorothy (Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Black Mirror’s Toby Kebbell) Turner, welcoming a live-in nanny into their enviable Philadelphia brownstone. Leanne (Game of Thrones’ Nell Tiger Free) doesn’t exactly fit in with her posh, one-percenter employers — she’s modest, reserved and pious, while the Turners are cynical, secular and ostentatious, defined more by what they have rather than who they are. Nevertheless, Leanne settles right in to her duties as a caregiver for the Turners’ baby, Jericho.

Chock-full of the plot twists we’ve come to expect from the guy who gave us The Sixth Sense, Servant’s first big reveal — which is truly not a spoiler if you’ve seen the show’s trailer or even poster — is that Jericho is actually a “reborn doll,” a lifelike recreation. The real Jericho died weeks before at just a few months old — the details of his death are suspiciously thin — sending Dorothy into a catatonic state. The only thing that brought her out of shock, explains Sean, who is totally not on board with the charade, was the doll. It appears Dorothy genuinely thinks he’s real.

Hearing all this, Leanne doesn’t flinch. She rocks Jericho with care, takes him on walks and greets Dorothy with him when she returns from work. She’s a TV news reporter; Sean is a consulting chef, though we don’t see them at their respective jobs (besides Dorothy on TV). In fact, viewers rarely leave the confines of the Turner home, which is sort of a character itself. The cast is as limited as the setting, consisting primarily of these three and Dorothy’s brother, happy-go-lucky playboy Julian (Ron Weasley himself, Rupert Grint). All deliver engaging performances.

While the lack of details surrounding Jericho’s death is immediately suspect, so is Leanne. She, too, has a mysterious backstory, and while Dorothy adores her, Sean and Julian are leery. Her presence brings all manner of changes within the house and family, begging the question, are the elements at play something heavenly or occult? Saintly or sinister? Viewers, not unlike the characters that slowly become unhinged, may begin to question if what they’re seeing is authentic — whose perspective are we really seeing through?

Food is a huge theme in Servant — with Sean’s obscure culinary creations juxtaposing Leanne’s steady diet of canned soup — employed in a lush way that can be both beautiful and chilling. Total Hannibal vibes. Hats off to the cinematographer for making even ordinary scenes, dining and otherwise, feel vaguely ominous.

The first season is definitely addictive and bingeable, but if you watched the quickly fleeting 30-minute episodes weekly as they premiered, it builds up a lot of excitement and gives time for your mind to develop theories. There are plenty of clues leading up to final-act reveals, and the show is definitely aware that eagle-eyed viewers are looking out for them. It’s part of the fun of watching a Shyamalan offering. The 10 installments are worth a second watch, especially once you’ve finished the season.

There’s been some frustration about the pacing of the show and its lack of answers throughout much of the plot. But I think Servant is just meant to be savored, like an expertly crafted menu. A second course, er, season has been ordered, and it’s unclear how this story will expand, whether as a continuation of this tale or an anthology with a completely new one.

As unsettling and head-scratching as the show can be, it’s a fun watch, especially with its setting and character constraints. Servant is a true unexpected treat from the new Apple TV+.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern

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