'Servant': TV Review

Definitely creepy, but not deep enough to be truly disturbing.
11/28/2019

Apple TV+'s M. Night Shyamalan-produced thriller knows what gets under your skin about parenthood and also gourmet cooking.

Apple TV+'s new thriller Servant knows what makes you squirm. Over 10 episodes, the M. Night Shyamalan-produced series gets under your skin and pokes at insecurities and phobias tied to childbirth and parenting.

What Servant is less effective at is finding that next level, narratively or psychologically, that would allow it to go from an efficient technical gem to anything deeper. It's very creepy, but maybe not especially scary, disturbing or, ultimately, satisfying.

Though Shyamalan is being used as the show's creative hook — he directed the unnerving first episode and the disappointing penultimate — Servant was actually created and written in its entirety by Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon). It's the story of Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner, an affluent Philadelphia couple. She's a beloved local TV reporter. He's a revered food consultant. Their house is an astonishing-if-creaky brownstone.

Their marriage is also showing cracks after the death of their infant son, and Dorothy in particular is barely holding on with the assistance of a so-called reborn doll, a hauntingly accurate effigy that she's treating like her departed Jericho. That's distressing enough, before the arrival of eerily sheltered 18-year-old Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), the nanny they hired to take care of the baby. Then things get really warped.

Servant is the darkest series Apple TV+ has attempted thus far, but that darkness is within a very PG-13 range, a little salty language and a whole lot of insinuation.

It's Repulsion by way of Rosemary's Baby by way of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, which gives you some sense of the big questions viewers are meant to be asking throughout. Are we looking through a perspective prone to delusion or hallucination? Are supernatural things afoot? Something religious or miraculous? Or are we dealing with something more rational, calculating and evil?

The occasional secondary figure might enter and exit the series, but Servant is cast as a small chamber piece. Ambrose's performance is intense and heightened as befits a woman used to living in front of a camera and now fighting with her own sanity, with Kebbell doing something quieter and more unexpected as Sean avoids many of the more familiar cliches tied to men in this genre. Unrecognizable from her tow-headed turn as the doomed Myrcella on Game of Thrones, Free makes Leanne sad, halting and totally unreadable in all the ways the story demands. Adding welcome humor and energy as the fourth member of the core quartet is Rupert Grint, amply believable as Dorothy's wine-swilling brother, whose occasional accent inconsistencies match those of Kebbell and Free to add to the show's alien tone.

On a formal level, Servant is a tight little exercise in calibrated unease. Almost the entire series takes place within the Turner house, expertly mounted by production designer Naaman Marshall, with only brief outdoor excursions of a block or two. When characters have to actually travel, they talk to people back at the house via FaceTime on iPhones, iPads and MacBooks. Directors, starting with Shyamalan and continuing with the likes of Daniel Sackheim, Nimrod Antal and Lisa Brühlmann, build claustrophobia within the confines of the residence, full of door frames posed like Gothic arches, lamps positioned to cast moody shadows and a wine cellar that deserves equal billing with the stars. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis balances the spooky with pristine, glossy food-porn depictions of Sean's cooking experiments, boundary-pushing cuisine in which the ingredients and preparations mirror the elegant barbarism of the story; Servant is the rare show aspiring to be nauseating and appetizing in equal measure. It's all propelled along by a Trevor Gureckis score that goes between lullaby simplicity and experimental cacophony.

For all of its aesthetic minimalism, though, Servant is a 90-minute movie stretched over 10 half-hour episodes. Actually, it's a Twilight Zone episode and my notes are a long list of introduced elements that never pay off, a litany of unresolved teases thumbing their nose at Chekhov's maxims about dramatic economy. The show is generally treating itself as a mystery and, with Shyamalan's name attached, it probably soothes you into expecting some big twists, almost all of which fall flat.

Instead, I found myself paying the most attention to little details and subtextual grace notes, some of which frustrated me in their thinness.

This is not, for example, a very good treatment of postpartum depression or traumatic coping mechanisms any more than Split was a very good treatment of multiple personality disorder, and I'm sure there's a reasonable argument that Shyamalan would probably be wise to stop using mental illness as a meekly explored catalyst for low-grade thrillers; if somebody wanted to be frustrated or offended at this tendency of his, I would not quibble. It's almost impossible to make sense of at least a half-dozen pivotal character decisions and I'm unsure which of those inconsistencies are the product of faulty series psychology and which are part of faulty narrative construction.

I was much more satisfied attempting to ponder the importance of food in the series, one that I think parallels molecular gastronomy with the mechanics of horror cinema, the misdirections and sleight of hand, the trickery and manipulation of the senses. After 10 episodes, I was more engaged with Servant as a food show featuring a dead baby than as a dead baby show with an abnormal amount of cooking.

Finally, there's the reading of Servant as an American TV equivalent of one of the year's best feature films, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite. The texts obviously aren't directly connected in any way, but as tragic-satirical, genre-hopping commentaries on hollow wealth, illusory upward mobility, unlikely food allergies and the importance of a refurbished basement, Servant and Parasite should surely be the foundation for a future essay or two.

Sometimes you have to make your own fun!

The show barrels along — it's going to provide a real test of patience for anybody watching on a weekly basis after the first three premiere together — and then stumbles through a two-episode conclusion that leaves so many elements dangling that viewers will either be angrily demanding a second season or angrily ready to check out entirely. Patient and curious through at least the eighth episode, I was closer to the latter.

Cast: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint
Creator: Tony Basgallop
Premieres: Thursday (Apple TV+)