Servant wants to unsettle you and pulls out all the stops necessary to keep viewers off-balance. Frequent screechy violins on the soundtracks? Check. Slow pans that pause to reveal a truly unexpected, shocking image? Yep, it’s got some of those. A story that involves religion, trauma, parental loss, objects reminiscent of the stick dolls from The Blair Witch Project, and a sense of constant, foreboding mystery? That pretty well describes this Apple+ series from British creator and writer Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon, Berlin Station) and executive producer M. Night Shyamalan, who also directed two of the season’s ten episodes. (The first three drop on the platform on Thursday, with the rest rolling out on a weekly basis.) It can also be described as melodramatic, overwrought, overacted, and, despite all of that, extremely bingeable, which makes me think that Apple is making a grave mistake by not releasing it all at once, so people can gobble it up on Friday and Saturday, then tweet about all the extra-weird parts on Sunday.
Servant is essentially a Black Mirror installment stretched into ten half-hour parts. It is American Horror Story, minus that franchise’s capacity to wink at itself and its own reliance on tropes. And yet as silly as the show gets, I still wanted to get to the bottom of what’s going on with Sean and Dorothy Turner (Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose), their new live-in nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free, Myrcella Baratheon from Game of Thrones), and the Turners’ infant son, Jericho, for whom Leanne is supposed to provide care. Silly but watchable could be Apple TV+’s brand. Hey, it’s not the worst brand.
At this point I am obligated to warn you that some light spoilers about Servant follow. If you want to go into the experience completely cold, read no further.
In the opening scenes of episode one, Leanne, a quiet, prayerful young woman, first arrives at the Turners’ spacious Philadelphia brownstone with her belongings and major “stranger in a horror movie” energy. As she settles in as the new au pair, it doesn’t take long to learn that something is not quite right in this house. In an effectively jarring scene, Sean goes to his son in the middle of the night, picks up the baby by his ankle, and lifts him out of his crib, smacking the child’s head on the rail as he does so. Jericho is not hurt, though, because — BIG REVEAL — Jericho is not real. He’s a living doll that’s been given to the Turners to help coax Dorothy out of the shock of losing the actual Jericho not long after he was born, for reasons that won’t be clarified for several episodes. Privately, Sean tells Leanne to play along with the situation. Before the first episode ends, though, it appears that won’t be necessary: Somehow the living, breathing Jericho is back and Dorothy, who has been pretending the doll is real, doesn’t seem to notice the difference.
Did Leanne conjure this human baby using some sort of witchcraft? (In addition to praying regularly, she also seems to have placed that aforementioned Blair Witch–esque object over the crib.) Or did she steal this child? How will the Turners introduce this baby to others, having supposedly lost theirs? Is it possible that everyone in this show has been dead the whole time? Look, this is an M. Night Shyamalan project, so it’s possible.
Sean is extremely suspicious of Leanne and he recruits Dorothy’s brother, Julian, played by Rupert Grint with a perpetual scowl, to help him investigate. Meanwhile, bad things start happening to Sean. He keeps getting random splinters and also completely loses his sense of taste overnight, a real problem since Sean is a chef and molecular gastronomist who spends his time experimenting with exotic culinary creations. As for Dorothy, a well-known local news reporter, she breezes in and out of the house every day, doting on her son and Leanne, and aiming cutting remarks at her husband. But occasionally she falls into trances, as though she is caught between two temporal dimensions.
There is nothing subtle about Servant. Every element of its creative approach is showy. In the first episode, directed by Shyamalan, Dorothy, Sean, and Julian are frequently depicted in extremely tight close-ups, presumably to convey the claustrophobic discomfort of living in the Turner home and the fact that the characters and the audience are, at this point, unable to see a larger picture. In all of the episodes, the camera lingers over the icky things that Sean turns into gourmet dishes, including squirmy eels and chirping crickets. Sean also has an extensive wine collection, and he and Julian drink generously from it at all hours of the day. Wine really gives Apple products, which are also used in abundance, a run for their money in terms of screen time. So does Campbell’s tomato soup, which Leanne consumes daily, fastidiously placing cans of it side by side in the kitchen cabinet.
Servant pays such close attention to details like this that it makes them seem like important clues to understanding whatever is going on here. Spoiler alert: Most of them are not! A lot of information is offered in Servant, and a lot of it doesn’t add up to much, at least not in these ten episodes. I assume, based on how this season ends and the number of threads left dangling and untied, that Basgallop wrote it under the assumption that there would be a second season — which has in fact been confirmed before the series even premieres.
In keeping with Servant’s hyperreality, some of the actors deliver heightened performances, particularly Grint and Ambrose. Grint is ultraintense and occasionally crude; if he’s still trying to shake off Ron Weasley, it makes total sense that he would seek out a part like this. But his simmering hostility as Julian feels performative. Ambrose is even more mannered as Dorothy, which makes sense for a woman trying her damnedest to act like everything is fine, but also comes across as a bit much, a bit too actorly.
And yet I kept watching, and not necessarily because I had to for work. The streaming explosion, and the competition to induce bingeing that has come with it, has yielded a number of shows that dangle plot developments or cliffhangers in every episode so we’ll keep going to the next one. Some shows do this well and in a way that feels organic to the type of story they are telling — Russian Doll and Dead to Me on Netflix are two examples — but Servant feels particularly manipulative in this regard. It’s like a streaming-series version of that Lucille Bluth bit from Arrested Development, where she expresses her irritation with Buster for saying, behind her back, that she gets off on being withholding. “Here’s a candy bar,” she says to Buster, offering it to him and then taking it away. “No. I’m withholding it. Look at me, getting off.”
That’s what Servant does and, I fear, more shows will do even less elegantly. It offers possible resolutions and answered questions, and seems to get off on withholding them. And despite its shortcomings, we keep going because we want a bite of that chocolate.