TV Review: “Servant” Serves Up an Entertaining, Yet Shallow, Mystery

How do you solve a problem like M Night Shyamalan? The filmmaker was once seen as an exciting new talent before a string of flops turned him into a punchline. With “Servant,” Apple TV+’s first horror series, Shyamalan proves he still knows how to scare. Though he only directs the first two episodes (“Servant” is created by Tony Basgallop), this project recalls the psychological thriller “The Sixth Sense” by way of a traditional haunted house film. “Servant” centers around the fear of leaving one’s child with a new nanny. There are a lot more twists and scares in “Servant” besides it’s titular sitter. Not all of them work as well as others. Many don’t get the payoff they deserve. Still, the series knows how to keep audiences watching thanks to strong genre performances and a genuinely fun, creepy aesthetic.

Warning: “Servant” deals out twists fast and furiously from the get go. If you want to go in completely blind, please do not read further.

Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) Turner are a young couple recovering after the death of their newborn baby, Jericho. Sean has moved on to the anger stage of grief. Meanwhile, Dorothy seems stuck in denial. She wants to believe so badly that Jericho is still alive. At the advisement of their counselor, the couple gets a lifelike doll to give Dorothy something to take care of while she works on coping with Jericho’s death. The only issue, Dorothy pretends that Jericho is still alive. This prompts her to hire Lianne (Nell Tiger Free), a nanny in charge of caring for the inanimate baby. Sean implores Lianne to continue the fantasy for Dorothy’s sake. However, things get crazy once, at the end of the first episode, the baby doll Jericho comes to life.

The story never fully interests itself in what it’s like to lose a child. It’s more interested in making us believe one, two or all three of our leads are crazy. The idea of an unreliable perspective can be fun, even if it’s nothing new. That description certainly applies to “Servant.” There’s a version of the show that dramatizes Sean and Dorothy’s loss similarly to “Don’t Look Now,” the classic Donald Sutherland/Julie Christie thriller.

However, “Servant” consistently finds itself more concerned with aesthetic over content. Apple’s deep pockets are on full display with the Turners’ immaculately creepy brownstone. Every creak in the floorboard or dimly lit, Gothic room feels ripped out of a Good Housekeeping spread edited by William Castle. Sean’s job as a chef acts as an excuse for “Servant” to serve up endless amounts of food porn. If Nancy Meyers watched too much “Scooby Doo,” we might have seen “Servant” a few years sooner.

The actors all work well in this heightened, macabre fun house version of peak TV. Lauren Ambrose swings for the fences with her work as Dorothy. A local news reporter, Dorothy treats every moment at home to the same level of vapid gusto that she gives to her increasingly ludicrous news segments. Forget “The Morning Show,” I want a prestige drama about Dorothy’s kooky local news station. It’s great to see Ambrose sink her teeth into a role that, while not deep, is certainly meaty. She always appears to be making large “acting” choices. This makes her a welcome appearance every time she breezes through the sometimes comically dark show.

She contrasts nicely with Toby Kebbel as Sean, her jaded chef husband. He approaches his home life with almost abject disdain. As our grumpy window into this world where something always goes bump in the night, Kebbel makes Sean entertainingly misanthropic. Together, Kebbel and Ambrose make Sean and Dorothy one of the most fun mismatched, doomed couples on TV. The closer they approach camp, the closer “Servant” gets to being good.

Meanwhile, Nell Tiger Free’s performance never feels real or specific. Instead, she is a collection of creepy tics in service of the show’s mood. This fits the function of the role, however, her mysterious nature never builds a distinct character. The supporting cast features other fun performers that add to the heightened mood, even if their characters never get fully fleshed out. Rupert Grint and Tony Revolori, in particular, have standout appearances.

There’s something compulsory about “Servant,” which is what matters most in a TV show. Even when every shock, scare or splinter never amounts to much more than an abandoned plot thread, “Servant” compels you to watch more. This bodes well for Apple TV+ as they build out their service with new offerings each month. “Servant” isn’t a home run. However, it’s a solid single or double hit that many will enjoy despite some of its misgivings. At the end of the day, if it thrills and delights, isn’t that all that matters?

“Servant” premiers on Apple TV+ on November 28th, 2019.

GRADE: (★)

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