Tony Basgallop created Servant and wrote every episode, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the complete work of M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable). Apple used Shyamalan’s name to promote this psychological horror series, which he produces and directed two episodes for. And that raises certain expectations in audiences; good and bad, given the filmmaker’s chequered career. But while there are tonal similarities to Shyamalan’s earlier work, like The Sixth Sense (1999), plus the fact it takes places in his hometown of Philadelphia, Servant deserves to be judged on its own merits.
Servant concerns Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell), an upwardly mobile celebrity couple. Dorthy’s a local TV news reporter, while her husband’s a famous consulting chef. The Turners hire a nanny to care for their infant son Jericho, but when meek teenager Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) arrives it becomes clear something peculiar is going on in their house. As Sean helpfully explains to their timid new employee, baby Jericho died and has been replaced by a ‘reborn doll’ (a lifelike replica that has helped Dorothy cope with her bereavement). Unexpectedly, Leanne isn’t phased by this odd situation and is already started treating said doll as if it were a real boy, much as Dorothy does, which immediately unsettles Sean…
If you don’t want to know more, it’s going to be difficult to review Servant without revealing a few early developments, so bail out now and come back after a few episodes to avoid spoilers! The big twist of the first instalment (that Shyamalan directed, of course) is that Sean grows increasingly unnerved by Leanne’s acceptance of the plastic Jericho, but then discovers a real crying baby in their dead son’s crib. Has the reborn doll been transformed into a real baby? Has someone switched their doll for a stolen child? Is Leanne to blame, or Dorthy? Is Sean perhaps the one suffering a delusion, not his wife? And why does Dorothy accept the real Jericho without question?
That’s the hook that Servant simmers on for 10 episodes, as we slowly learn more about the Turner’s relationship and what happened in their marriage before Jericho’s untimely death. We also come to understand more about placid Leanne, particularly once Dorothy’s younger brother Julian (Rupert Grint) enters the picture and becomes an ally because he’s the only other person who knows Jericho died 13 weeks after his birth.
Servant is a slow-burn Twilight Zone-y tale that, amazingly, rarely leaves the Turner residence. There are a handful of sequences set on the street outside and less beyond that, but we don’t often leave the handful of rooms in the one townhouse. When characters do go somewhere different, they’re usually reporting back to Sean through FaceTime calls. This all helps to give Servant a doubly claustrophobic feel, which mirror the feeling new mothers have with babies and how the four walls close in on them. Dorothy and Sean go to work and have social commitments (hence hiring a nanny), but when they do we’re always stuck indoors with Leanne and the occasional visitor she has—primarily irrascible Julian and Sean’s commis chef Tobe, but a few others help expand the cast in the back half of the season.
Servant is effectively moody and eerily presented, especially in the first five episodes. Leanne’s a fascinating character, in the sense she’s not liked by anyone other than Dorothy (who we know is mentally fragile and perhaps not a good judge of character), but there’s no clear reason to dislike Leanne beyond her odd decision to never acknowledge the Turner’s weird setup. Leanne’s behaviour suggests she’s involved with the Jericho craziness, but why would she want to give Dorothy a real child and get paid to look after it?
When urgent questions are swirling everywhere and fresh developments and intrigues are being added each episode, Servant is at its best. But like so many other ‘mystery box’ shows, there comes a point where the story needs to start settling on answers. And sadly, once a few things are explained about Leanne’s background, her character loses some of its appeal. The finale does rekindle some of her earlier creepiness, to foreshadow the second season, but the overriding problem is that Servant‘s at its best when we know the least.
Fo that reason, Servant would have definitely made a better two-hour movie. This story could be told adequately well in a shorter timespan, where unsatisfying answers wouldn’t linger in the memory if the mystery was fun and does get explained. When you stretch the story to 10 instalments, the depth you gain with the characters results in times when the narrative is being padded and people aren’t behaving realistically because doing so would end the story abruptly. There’s one particularly maddening episode when Leanne’s weird Uncle George (Boris McGiver) pays the Turner’s a visit, and it was ridiculous to even contemplate polite people being so tolerant of his behaviour.
Notably, Servant‘s episodes are an average of 30-minutes long. This works in its favour, as the season is easily digestible and worth sticking with even when the arc starts to go off track. The commitment level is low for the season as it’s only seven traditional drama-length instalments spread out across an extra three episodes. More shows should adapt their runtimes in this way, as streaming platforms are unencumbered by the need for commercial breaks.
With so much of the show taking place in a single location, with only four main characters, a lot of Servant rests on the abilities of its cast. The performances are what draws you back if the story starts to test your patience.
Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell are both good and make for a plausible upper-middle-class couple, grappling with their grief and the difficulties of making their marriage work in the aftermath of a tragedy. But the problem is the tragedy is something only Toby acknowledges happened, so for him it’s like he’s living with someone who can’t face reality, only for the situation to flip and now he’s the one that can’t make sense of what’s happened with their son. Ambrose has a more difficult challenge with a character who’s under such personal and professional strain, but for the most part she does a good job. There are a few occasions when Dorothy behaves in a ludicrous manner, or Ambrose’s performance slips into being a slight parody of a mother going insane, but some of that can be blamed on the scripts.
Nell Tiger Free is a less-known English actress, but does a fine job here in a quiet role that works brilliantly during the earlier episodes. Leanne loses a lot of her mystique as the show goes along, which is a shame considering the gentle oddness she brings to the show, but Free is never dull to watch and her willow appearance and quiet demeanour make Leanne peculiar without slipping into any ‘evil nanny’ cliches.
Servant is a flawed series, but there’s no denying it has its peculiar charm and you’ll be so intrigued by the earlier episodes that you’ll watch through to the end. If there’s enough here to warrant future seasons (the second is due for release on 15 January) is debatable, but the first one is an effective modern chiller about grief and parenthood.
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USA | 2019 | 318 MINUTES • 10 EPISODES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
writer: Tony Basgallop.
directors: M. Night Shyamalan, Daniel Sackheim, Nimród Antal, Alexis Ostrander, Lisa Brühlmann & John Dahl.
starring: Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Tony Revolori, Boris McGiver, Jerrika Hinton & Todd Waring.