Plot: Servant follows a Philadelphia couple in mourning after an unspeakable tragedy creates a rift in their marriage and opens the door for a mysterious force to enter their home.
Review: You may have seen the creepy teasers for Apple TV+ series Servant in the lead-up to the service’s launch. Featuring a creepy doll and some gothic shots teasing something unnatural and creepy going on, it was hard to pin what exactly the series was about. All we knew was that it was coming from M. Night Shyamalan and looked scary. Well, I can confirm that those teasers are spot on as this is one of the most unsettling shows in recent memory and one of the best things to come from Shyamalan since THE SIXTH SENSE. It is also a well executed thriller along the lines of ROSEMARY’S BABY and HEREDITARY that never shows anything horrible and yet conveys an aura of horror and dread. In short, this is a messed up show and I could not stop watching.
Set over ten episodes (four of which were made available for this review, Servant follows Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) who hire a live-in nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to care for their infant son, Jericho. By the midway point of the first episode (and as shown in the full trailer), you will learn why things are not what they seem and that is when the series goes completely bananas. If you haven’t seen the trailers, I recommend avoiding them because the way the reveal is handled is as engrossing as the rest of the series. But, you would think that with that twist being spoiled that you will expect what comes next but you would be wrong. Many experienced viewers may see some of the plot elements coming, but the series manages to make them all seem fresh and very, very creepy.
What makes Servant work so well is the acting by the small cast. While Tony Revelori appears in a smaller supporting role, the four main castmembers are who we predominantly see on screen. Rupert Grint has the least amount of screen time as Dorothy’s brother but he does well with his screen time, leaving behind any associations with Ronald Weasley. Nell Tiger Free is subtle and innocent in her portrayal of the mysterious Leanne while Lauren Ambrose plays Dorothy as just slightly eccentric and on the brink of a breakdown that you will feel anxious any time she is on screen. But the star here is Toby Kebbell. A veteran of Black Mirror and motion capture roles in KONG: SKULL ISLAND and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, Kebbell excels here at playing a man dealing with holding his wife from the brink of a psychotic break while trying to ascertain the truth himself. His sanity is put to the test and ours along with him. It is an excellent performance.
Created and written by Tony Basgallop (24: Legacy, Outcast), Servant relies on atmosphere and the power of suggestion rather than blatant horror or on screen violence. This is a series that does not need cheap jump scares or loud soundtrack cues to enhance a feeling of foreboding in every shot. This is a fairly simple story that takes some familiar story elements and turns them on their head. The more I watched Servant, the more uncomfortable I felt. It may not even be fair to categorize this as horror as much as it is a psychological thriller, but there are aspects that border on something unnatural that this series truly earns the right to be called horror.
With episodes directed by Daniel Sackheim (The X-Files, Game of Thrones), Lisa Bruhlman, John Dahl (JOY RIDE) and Nimrod Antal (PREDATORS), Servant is anchored by M. Night Shyamalan‘s camera work in the first episode which sets the tone for the rest of the series. For most of the episodes, the camera is static and pans to show us different parts of the house, a location we never leave the vicinity of. Aside from some sequences shot on iPhones and iPads (the most blatant product placement in any of the Apple TV+ series), the series benefits from a claustrophobic tone that is enhanced by off kilter framing and unsettling close-ups of characters. In all, this is the best directed project Shyamalan has delivered in a long time.
Servant is easily my favorite of the Apple TV+ series that have debuted so far on the service. Servant is haunting, eerie, and downright scary. Having only seen half of the season at the time of this review, I cannot say if the story sticks the landing, but it sets up one of the best seasons of TV I have seen in a long time. It may seem a bit familiar to some but it is told in such a way that you will rewind and revisit elements of each episode, looking for clues as to what comes next. While this seems like a standalone rather than an ongoing series, it definitely shows that Apple TV+ is willing to try their hand at very different types of stories and pull them off well.
Servant premieres November 28th on Apple TV+.