‘Servant’ Twists Itself Into Knots
While many genres lend themselves as well to television as film, horror has generally seemed better suited to the big screen. There’s something fundamental to the nature of horror stories that demands the spell they cast over the audience not last very long — especially because their plots often require the heroes to do dumb things that the audience will start to question after a while. Horror can work incredibly well on television, but usually when it’s cross-bred with another genre (action for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, crime procedural for X-Files and Hannibal), and/or when it structures itself to meet TV’s needs. (Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House stumbled at the end, but was episodic enough to keep the story lively until that point.)
Apple TV+’s new horror series Servant was produced and occasionally directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who knows a bit about casting a disturbing spell over an audience for two hours at a time. Thanks to Shyamalan and the directors who follow him (including Daniel Sackheim and John Dahl), not to mention committed performances from a small cast, Servant starts off with creepy atmosphere to spare. The problem is that it doesn’t have nearly enough story to fill 10 episodes, which means that all that spare atmosphere gets used up well before its five-plus-hour running time is over.
Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell play well-to-do Philadelphia couple Dorothy and Sean Turner. She’s a local news personality, while he’s an in-demand private chef. After recently welcoming baby son Jericho into their home, the Turners have…
…well, here we run into the challenge with many Shyamalan-affiliated projects, even ones like this that he didn’t write. (All the scripts are by Tony Basgallop.) There will of course be twists, and Servant offers several in its first episode alone. Suffice it to say that all is not well between Dorothy and Sean, and their new nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) is also not quite what she appears. Quickly, all three of them are seeing events related to Jericho in profoundly incompatible ways.
The set-up phase is where Servant is at its strongest. Well before we find out what’s really going on — and then what’s really really going on — it’s clear that something is deeply wrong within the walls of their palatial brownstone, which has the kind of kitchen you’d see when Googling “real estate porn.” The twists in the early going are genuinely unnerving, at times startling — I about jumped off my couch and shouted “He did not just do that!” at one scene in the premiere. And the arrival of Rupert Grint as Dorothy’s smug, dilettante brother Julian adds the perfect black-comic flavor to the strange doings between the Turners and Leanne.
The biggest early twist comes at the end of the first episode, and the emotional reality of the household results in Sean being the only one who seems fully aware of what’s happened. It’s the kind of thing that should make it impossible for him to do anything all day, every day, except try to find out exactly what has taken place, how, why, and whether there’s a way to undo it. And Sean… mostly goes back to cooking. At one point, he even re-sands the hallway floors. Here and there, he and Julian attempt to investigate Leanne and figure out her role in these strange doings, but he mostly just broods and makes seafood.
The horror genre all but demands that people behave in ways that seem illogical or self-destructive just to keep the story going. That can work just fine in the confined setting of a film, especially as the plot keeps churning and there isn’t much opportunity to start questioning what an idiot someone is being. But so little happens in Servant past the first episode that it becomes hard to not dwell on Sean’s inability to call in the police, a medical professional, and/or Doctor Strange to figure out what’s up.
It doesn’t help that Sean is the least compelling of the four central characters, a mope who is dealing with trauma himself but never seems particularly sympathetic. Ambrose can play a wide range of emotions and tones, but the story backs Dorothy into a corner early on that doesn’t allow her to showcase that versatility. Sean is the protagonist; Dorothy often comes across as the obstacle in his path, or another riddle to be solved. The series is so much about motherhood, it seems a wasted opportunity not to make Dorothy the point-of-view character. There are some echoes of Rosemary’s Baby, but a version where Rosemary is a largely oblivious supporting character.
Servant is presented from Sean’s perspective, and it follows his inactive lead. Characters say ominous things — as Dorothy watches her husband cook, she notes, “Eels, they don’t realize when they’re dead” — that seem like they’re going somewhere dark, but then nothing comes of them. (A few episodes in, I stopped keeping track of all the things that seemed like they would be examples of Chekhov’s Gun theory, because it became clear none of these guns would ever be fired. This notion proved unfortunately correct.)
The devotion to twists and reversals also winds up doing more harm than good in a long-form series like this. There are times when it feels like Basgallop is on the verge of revealing Leanne’s real agenda — or, at least, showing us a facet of her that she doesn’t let Sean or Dorothy see — but any character work for her is quickly undone in favor of pulling the rug out from under the audience again. Nell Tiger Free plays her as just the right mix of otherworldly and simply eccentric, but there’s not enough substance to Leanne to carry the season.
The show’s best and most surprising performance comes from Rupert Grint, who leaves behind all trace of Ron Weasley (even his American accent is convincing) to play this entitled, wine-loving rich boy who wants to protect his sister but on some level is also getting off on the craziness surrounding the new nanny. Long after I’d lost patience with the rest of the show, Grint — and the occasional gonzo guest appearance by character actor Boris McGiver as Leanne’s extremely wet uncle — helped justify the decision to keep watching.
Ultimately, though, Servant is too empty to be worth the time, in spite of the performances and the great atmosphere. The end of the season is designed to make viewers intrigued by what happens next, but it mainly left me exasperated that so much had been promised and so little delivered. The early scares and creepy vibes fade away long before it’s over.
The first three episodes of Servant debut November 28th on Apple TV+. Episodes are released weekly after that.