Servant Season 1 (Apple TV+)
Written by Tony Basgallop
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Daniel Sackheim, Nimrod Antal, Alexis Ostrander, Lisa Bruhlmann, and John Dahl
A few months ago, I posted reviews of the first episodes of a handful of Apple TV+ shows, and overall I wasn’t very impressed. The entire slew seemed very derivative of already popular shows from the past (The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, etc.). I was intrigued by Servant, a horror series produced by M. Night Shyamalan. Despite my intense disappointment with that director’s recent output, I figured he was producing so he couldn’t screw the show up too badly. The first couple episodes were a little rough going, it took some time to get a feel for the tone the series was going for. By the end of the season, they had me hooked, and I am ready for season two to get here.
Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose & Toby Kebbell) are living with a shadow over their Philadelphia brownstone. Six weeks ago, something horrible happened, and their newborn son Jericho died. Dorothy has apparently lost her connection with reality, and a holistic therapist suggested using a reborn doll as a way to transition her back. Before Jericho died, Dorothy was in the midst of a search for a nanny and continues it despite Sean trying to guide her away. They end up with Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), a girl barely eighteen who immediately takes to the doll and proves to be the nanny of Dorothy’s dreams. Sean is suspicious and believes Leanne is concealing some secret. He confides in Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint), who also shares the knowledge of what happened to Jericho all those months before. Sean’s suspicions bear fruit when he doesn’t find the reborn doll in the crib but a live baby.
You might think at first glance that Servant will be a pastiche of Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen, but it’s not that simple. Because the story is so decompressed, the mystery unfolds at a slower pace, and it becomes clear this isn’t an anti-christ as a baby story. Leanne is a genuinely sympathetic character, and Sean really ends up coming across as the antagonist. However, just as you feel that you have a handle on the characters’ places in the narrative, you get an episode that challenges those expectations. By the end of season one, it is clear that to boil Sean or Leanne down to a villain or hero is truly simplistic and that there is much more to be told in this story.
I found the series really found it’s footing in the third act of the season, especially the final two episodes. In “Jericho,” we get a Dorothy spotlight that jumps between the present and the event of six months prior. The circumstances surrounding the death of Jericho are finally revealed, and it is genuinely heartbreaking. M. Night returns to direct that episode, and he is a perfect fit for the script. He directed the pilot, which felt way too showy with its cinematography when I think it needed to be more muted and just set the stage. M. Night’s strength with narratives that challenge expectations works for “Jericho” because we end up in the disoriented perspective of Dorothy.
The strongest acting talent in the production is Lauren Ambrose as Dorothy, who at first comes off as wide-eyed and annoying. However, as the show reveals bits and pieces of life before Jericho’s death and we realize what we see in the present is a shell-shocked woman trying to pretend as if one of the worst things that could happen to a person was just a dream. She’s a reporter of a local Philly news station, so her theatrical and sometimes overdramatic behavior has its roots in her profession. Recordings of her stories from the field are used to help frame Dorothy as someone good at her job and mentally well.
I do give a lot of credit to Nell Tiger Free, who plays Leanne because she has what is probably the most challenging role in the show. I’m sure much of the audience expected her to be more overtly villainous or crazy (e.g., the nanny in The Omen). Instead, she plays Leanne as an incredibly naive young woman, unfamiliar with big city life and having a social life. We learn she grew up in an isolated rural area, and so everything about Dorothy and Sean’s life is so exotic to her. Leanne suddenly comes to life when she’s caring for the baby, hinting at a past as the older sibling in charge of the younger ones. The final episode, “Balloon,” gives Free a chance to bring some more layers to Leanne, presenting her as completely submissive to powers looming over her life.
Servant is by no means a perfect show, but it is the only program from Apple that I looked forward to watching each week. I am very interested to see where season two goes, and there are several angles it could take in the next steps. Leanne’s story definitely has much more in it, both revelations about her past and what she is expected to do next. I found Sean’s arc by the end of the season to be beautifully unsettling as he loses his grip while Dorothy regains hers. I expect Sean to will be an impediment to Dorothy in the next season, becoming something of a fanatic. If you are looking for a well-written horror series in the tv landscape, Servant has a lot to offer.