The best horror deals with a single powerful anxiety like isolation, the loss of identity, or the threat of technology. The Apple TV Plus psychological thriller series Servant, produced and partially directed by M. Night Shyamalan, takes a more scattershot approach. It’s sort of about grief, class, and marital strife. But mostly, it’s about recombining a host of horror tropes to create a show that’s powerfully atmospheric, but not especially meaningful.
Toby Kebbell effectively reprises his role in the seminal Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You” as he plays Sean Turner, an emotionally distant, abrasive guy in a deeply troubled marriage. Sean might be on the verge of losing his mind. He works from his stunning Philadelphia home as a chef, crafting gourmet meals for catering orders and photo shoots in scenes that blend the artistry and occasionally grotesque carnality of cooking in a way Hannibal fans will find familiar.
While Sean spends his days tending his luscious herb garden and sipping a glass of whatever pricey bottle he’s pulled out of his cavernous wine cellar, his wife Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose of Six Feet Under), works as a TV news reporter, tracking murder trials and venturing into the city’s sewers to take an axe to a fatberg. A few months after the birth of their son Jericho, Dorothy is ready to return to work, so she hires 18-year-old Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free, Game of Thrones’ Myrcella Baratheon) as a live-in nanny.
The twist is that Jericho is dead, and Dorothy has only been brought back from a total mental breakdown through a therapy where she mothers a doll that’s just lifelike enough to be deeply creepy. Leanne seems perfectly willing to go along with the delusion, even when Sean tries to get her to break character when Dorothy isn’t not around. The way different characters treat the doll sets up some disturbing dissonance, as Sean stops gently rocking it and throws it to the ground in disgust as soon as Dorothy is out of sight. A moment when he callously smacks the doll’s head against the crib, then breaks down in tears, hints at an emotional core that showrunner Tony Basgallop rarely seems able to truly access.
Shyamalan has had a remarkably inconsistent career since The Sixth Sense, but his horror bona fides are on full display when he’s directing “Reborn,” the first of the series’ 10 episodes. (Shymalan also directs the series’ ninth episode, which is still under embargo.) It’s deeply unsettling, as the extremely muted, soft-spoken Leanne creates a silent void around her which Dorothy tries to fill with manic chattering. The camera always seems a little too close, focusing on hands and faces and creating palpable anxiety.
But there’s so much unused potential for some form of topicality in the show. Sean and Dorothy debate how much concern they have to feel for “the help.” When Leanne says her dream for the future is to be happily married and raise children of her own, Sean jabs at his wife’s ambitions: “See, honey? For some people, that is enough.” Leanne seems to prepare herself the same simple meal of canned tomato soup day after day, by contrast with Sean’s elaborate feasts. Dorothy decides she’s going to be Leanne’s friend and takes her out shopping, only to immediately borrow her new shoes in a display of benevolence that’s also appropriative.
But none of it really goes anywhere, as Basgallop is primarily focused on stretching out the mystery of who Leanne is, what she wants, and what she’s capable of, rather than exploring any of the questions about gender roles and class that she could represent.
Dorothy’s brother Julian Pearce (Harry Potter’s Rupert Grint) serves as a mix of the voice of reason and comic relief in this mess. He bursts on the scene to appraise the new nanny’s attractiveness and winds up being a confidant and sanity check for Sean and a protector for Dorothy’s fragile psyche. The two men use Dorothy’s mental break as an excuse to keep her in the dark as they become more and more suspicious of Leanne, but it’s also an excuse for Basgallop to stretch the show’s plot beyond credulity. The characters repeatedly fail to just press Leanne for answers, and let her keep wandering the house like an enigmatic ghost.
She is a genuinely creepy one though, feeling out of time and place in her highly conservative clothing and old-fashioned nightgown. She emanates a mix of innocence and malice, making the scenes where she sneaks into Dorothy’s room to try on her jewelry and makeup fall somewhere between a child putting on her mother’s clothes, and the identity thriller Single White Female. Despite her tiny size and unthreatening mannerisms, Leanne seems to subtly dominate every interaction.
Each episode of Servant is only about 30 minutes long, creating compact bites of tension. But their impact wanes as the season continues and Shyamalan passes the camera to directors with less distinctive styles. While there’s nothing overtly supernatural in the first three episodes of the show, which will be available to stream on November 28, Basgallop is drawing on a potpourri of horror tropes.
Leanne lurks in shadowed corners of the house spying on its residents, and sets up a creepy woven cross above Jericho’s bed. Sean seems cursed with a series of minor physical ailments that produce some body horror that’s more dreadful in anticipation than execution. There are even elements of shaky-cam footage horror as Julian video-calls Sean. Then of course there are all the tropes focused around creepy dolls, evil babies, and the toll of motherhood. Trevor Gureckis’ music underscores that theme by sounding like a baby mobile made for a ghost.
But Servant mostly feels like a haunted-house story, with almost all the action set within the Turners’ home, or right outside its doors. As big as that home is, it feels stifling and isolating, thanks to the show’s small cast. This could be a commentary on the isolation of grief and parenthood, but again, Basgallop feels more concerned with the genre’s trappings than its underlying meaning.
Like a less-campy version of American Horror Story, Servant strives to keep viewers invested by slowly portioning off bits of its mystery and ending each episode with some particularly potent new twist or piece of information. It’s visually compelling and well acted enough to be serviceable entertainment, but like the creepy doll at the heart of the story, it has a lifelessness that makes it hard to love.
Servant will debut on Apple TV Plus on November 28, with new episodes coming out on Fridays.