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M. Night Shyamalan’s unnerving Servant has too much up its sleeve

Nell Tiger Free
Photo: Apple TV+
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Something seemed off about the dead-eyed baby in the first teaser for Apple TV+’s Servant. Because that baby, we learned in the series’ proper trailer, is a doll. Specifically, it’s a “reborn baby,” a term for an uncannily lifelike line of dolls that serve as keepsakes for some and therapy for others. For Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose), it’s a lifeline, an illusion to help her process the death of her own child, Jericho, who died at 13 weeks. But the illusion is dangerous—Dorothy believes this lump of vinyl and hair is her living, breathing child. And the moment of cathartic realization that her husband, stay-at-home chef Sean (Toby Kebbell), hopes will come, remains elusive. He can’t stop her when she hires a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to care for it, and he can’t believe it when Leanne also begins treating the doll as if it’s both real and his son.

There are shades of mid-grade spooker The Boy in the setup, but Servant has much more up its sleeve than that 2016 dud—too much, perhaps. As Leanne’s meek, unnerving presence cements itself into the Turners’ lives, odd enigmas begin to unfold. Dorothy has a medical breakthrough, Sean becomes afflicted by splinters and loses his sense of taste, and Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), begins to discover that Leanne may not be who she says she is. There are Bible verses, peepholes, feral animals, bug infestations, and offbeat visitors, all of it punctuated by gruesome, often gorgeous sequences of luxury meal preparation, from the blunt chopping of bleeding meat to the yanking of wet squid carcasses. There are enough motifs and metaphors to fill out a half dozen prestige dramas, and, in the eight episodes screened for critics, they raise more questions than they answer.

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Servant can be a frustrating watch, with its oddball ensemble manifesting as eerily, purposefully translucent, but it’s a compulsive one. The 30-minute episodes help—every minute feels purposeful, symbolic, or some combination of the two—and there’s a hysterical quality, both in its performances and plotting, that gives its austere, shadowy aesthetic a surprising spark. Ambrose’s performance, for example, is less human than it is influencer, as if, even in moments of personal calm, she’s performing some idea of her best self. It’s a smart choice, especially for a woman whose grief has given way to mania, but there’s a similar sense of absurdity to her onscreen partners. Kebbell’s Sean is aggressively unlikable, an endless font of casual cruelty and dispassionate asides, and Julian chugs enough wine to kill a horse when he’s not flaunting his flabby, sneering wit. M. Night Shyamalan, an executive producer and the director of the first episode, frames them in a number of tight, queasy point-of-view shots that illustrate how intrusive these personalities—Dorothy’s, specifically—feel for the withdrawn Leanne. Alternatively, they situate Leanne as the alien on this foreign planet, an object of fascination.

The heightened performances work not only in the context of the high-concept plot, but also the upscale townhouse in which Servant primarily unfolds. Refined and tidy to a point of absurdity, the home feels more like a set than a lived-in space. Dorothy and Sean, too, feel plucked from literature—where else would you find a TV reporter and a chef lording over a fully stocked wine cellar? Julian’s job and life outside the townhouse also remains murky, as does so much of Servant’s broader world. The glimpses we do get of what lies beyond exist mostly in Dorothy’s onscreen fluff reports, which play time and again to an empty living room.

Rupert Grint and Toby Kebbell
Photo: Apple TV+
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That suffocating sense of isolation makes Leanne’s impact, subdued though she may be, land that much harder. Free’s performance is airily delicate, and she navigates a few of the character’s more abrupt shifts gracefully, even when they don’t track narratively. Like the show, her character remains opaque for longer than it should, but the dynamics introduced by Shyamalan and creator Tony Basgallop are rich in thematic potential, even when it feels as if there are too many of them. There’s the class commentary of a religious, uneducated girl from Wisconsin disrupting the lives and parenthood of rich, worldly city dwellers. There’s an entitled air of misogyny baked into how Sean and Julian discuss both Dorothy and Leanne. Then there’s the enduring fascination with bodies and biology, with Sean’s cooking forcing us to engage with the guts stuffed inside every living being. And, by the end of the premiere, the Christ allusions come fast and furious.

It’s tough to latch onto these ideas, though, when the story continues to pivot, tease, and withhold. Mystery is good, but Servant operates between so many blurred lines that, on an episode-to-episode basis, one longs for more solid ground—or, perhaps, a Shyamalan-like twist to lock everything into place.

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About the author

Randall Colburn

Randall Colburn is The A.V. Club's Internet Culture Editor. He lives in Chicago, occasionally writes plays, and was a talking head in Best Worst Movie, the documentary about Troll 2.