It was only a matter of time before one of our newest streaming services, Apple TV+, got into the horror game. It's as hot a genre as any, and one month into its somewhat lukewarm run, now seems like the time for the platform to let its freak flag fly a little higher. Enter Servant: a new psychological horror show from creator Tony Basgallop and executive producer/director M. Night Shyamalan. Basgallop, a British TV writer, displays a lot of ambition in Servant's first season, which he wrote in its entirety. Shyamalan's steady hand at the directing/executive producer wheel helps make this the best-looking, most atmospheric show Apple has offered up to date. But is it enough to make Servant a must-watch? Even after devouring the ten-episode first season at a fast clip, I'm on the fence.
The Apple TV+ series starts as it means to go on—creepily, that is—and the setup is irresistible. Nell Tiger Free plays Leanne, a meek girl from rural Wisconsin hired as a live-in nanny for an affluent Philadelphia couple: Celebrity chef Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell, always giving it 100 percent) and TV reporter Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose, profoundly magnetic). They're busy, working people, naturally, and need help with their newborn child, Jericho. There's just one snag we find out quite early on: There is no Jericho. The real child died shortly after being born under mysterious circumstances, and "Jericho" as we're introduced to him is a lifelike doll, a therapy technique for Dorothy, who is still deeply in denial over Jericho's death. She treats the prop like her living, breathing offspring.
Even before we're introduced to the not-quite-third member of the Turner family, Basgallop and Shyamalan do a great job emphasizing the "something's-not-quite-right-here" vibe that saturates Servant in every frame. Leanne's first sit-down interview with the Turners is shot from her perspective, tight on Dorothy's deliberately cheerful, almost manic expression, with Sean just out of focus behind her. The beautiful, modern townhouse the occupy feels expensive but cold, with all the trappings of a West Elm showroom more than an actual home.
With its cast and setting, Servant, one feels, could easily be adapted into a play without much fuss: The melodrama and performances never teeter over the brink into parody. Moreover, in one of the show's best creative choices, we almost never leave the house in its five hours. Even when we do, we're only hopping across the street to attend to a parked car. The isolation for all three main players becomes more and more oppressive for the viewer as the show goes on. When Dorothy goes to work, we only see her via the television in the Turner's living room. When Sean is out on an errand, he'll call in on FaceTime (nice synergy there). Even surrounded by neighbors with their own lives in their own houses, with cars zipping past, this city home may as well be a haunted mansion in the middle of nowhere. It's quite a feat.
Less effective is Servant's pace, which piles up the disturbing mysteries with gleeful abandon without much of a plan, it seems. There's enough iconography and ideas to sustain five decent horror shows here: From the dead-eyed doll to Sean's sudden and inexplicable physical maladies the moment Leanne sets foot in the house: Immediately, he's beset by mysterious splinters on his body daily, and fully loses his sense of taste. Kind of a bad rap for someone whose whole deal is experimental gastronomy.
And yet, Servant takes an almost laissez-faire approach to the intriguing dominoes it sets up, barely ever even threatening to topple them. Sean, honestly, doesn't seem that bothered to wake up every day with wood chips in his back, nor does he ever even mention seeing a doctor about regaining his ability to eat. Mild spoilers ahead for the first episode, but it will come as no surprise that Leanne is not entirely the meek country mouse she seems, and an end-of-episode twist hints at the supernatural invading this already disturbing family unit.
As the show barrels on, we get more information on Leanne's past, as well as just how damaged the Turners are by whatever actually happened to the real Jericho—a reveal teased too often and paid off too late.
A second season has already been commissioned, so let's hope the show might learn from some of its early mistakes here: There's a very good show hiding in Servant. Each episode, named after some dish Sean's experimenting with, or an item found in the house, works well enough as a standalone half-hour. Sean's kitchen adventures are gorgeously shot. In a show with little blood spilled, Servant has no qualms showing us an eel's skin being peeled off its body for preparation. It's gruesome, fascinating, and maybe even a little appetizing. The supporting cast does good work, too. Rupert Grint as Dorothy's well-meaning alcoholic brother is a pleasant surprise and comes to factor into the story more and more as the endgame approaches.
It's hard to deliver a firm verdict on Servant, even after experiencing the entire first season, because there is so obviously a longer story being told here, and there's plenty in this installment I can't talk about before the show airs. Safe to say, this is a successful horror show in its oppressive atmosphere and pitch-perfect character work. If you don't mind sitting back and not sweating where this is all going, you might just be as excited for a second season as I am.
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A new streaming service is here, boasting new, star-studded shows…that don’t really work.
Originally Appeared on GQ