This Servant review contains no spoilers.
It’s going to be a little while before an Apple TV+ show premieres and the metacommentary focuses on anything other than what it means for the fledgling streaming service’s existence and long term strategy.
That’ll happen when a new streaming service pops up from the ground with no library of content to back it up. Apple TV+ is simply the product of whatever Apple and its headphone jack dongle money can afford to churn out at the moment. When Servant premieres on November 28, it will be Apple TV+’s fifth show, meaning Servant is literally 20% of Apple TV+ at the moment. It’s 99 cents worth of your $4.99 Apple subscription.
Servant as a season of Syfy’s Channel Zero anthology series would be a little-watched yet appreciated cult hit. Servant as an Apple TV+ show is a referendum on a trillion-dollar company’s corporate strategy. It’s an unusual environment for any TV show to exist in. And the weirdness of it all threatens to smother Servant before it can even express itself. Servant, in turn, responds by meeting and matching that weirdness.
Servant, from producer M. Night Shyamalan (who also directs episodes 1 and 9) and creator Tony Basgallop, presents the story of a normal (though obscenely wealthy) Philadelphia family. Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) is a successful bon vivant chef to the rich and famous and his wife, Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) is an equally successful local newscaster. Tragedy strikes the Turner family when their only child, Jericho, dies at 13 weeks old (offscreen thankfully).
Following Jericho’s death, Dorothy has a nervous breakdown and can only lead a normal life again through a controversial psychotherapeutic treatment known as “transitional object therapy.”
An uncanny valley-violating lifelike Jericho doll is brought in to the Turners home to serve as an emotional replacement until Dorothy’s emotional health improves. But as the story picks up, many weeks have gone by and the creepy little Jericho doll remains a mainstay of the Turner household. Dorothy even brings an 18-year-old nanny from Wisconsin named Leanne Grayson in to lighten the fake child-rearing load. Soon enough, Leanne proves to be every bit as creepy as the rubbery little fake infant she’s charged with looking after.
To Servant’s credit, it doesn’t just introduce an intriguing premise and call it a day. The show’s first three episodes (all of which premiere on November 28 and all of which were screened for this review) have an appropriate sense of escalation. Each episode builds on the previous in a meaningful way, while presenting its own new quirks. All three of those episode (which refreshingly hold to around a half hour and change each) also bear a single, enigmatic word for a title. “Reborn”, “Wood”, and “Eel “make up the first three, and you best believe that each of those episodes make good use of those titles, incorporating the concepts as themes, motifs, or symbols within.
The show pretty quickly proves that it’s able to synthesize its initial premise into a larger story worthy of serialization. In fact, it’s a little surprising how well a project that bears M. Night Shyamalan’s name adopts the rhythms of serialized storytelling. This of course isn’t Shyamalan’s first foray into television as Fox’s typically twisty sci-fi drama Wayward Pines precedes it. Show creator Basgallop also has a long history of writing for British television. It’s still appreciated that an Apple TV+ show has at least a cursory understanding of the medium. This doesn’t just feel like a movie spread out over several episodes to match the preferred TV format.
Where Servant feels more like a film thought (and more particularly a Shyamalan film) is in its sense of visual style. The first episode, directed by Shyamalan, carries many of the filmmaker’s distinct cues. Cameras are left stationary as scenes progress far into the foreground. Perspective is able to make the Turner household feel uncomfortably cramped or impossibly vast. Drinks aren’t sipped but rather gulped and slammed so hard on a counter in front of the camera that they fizz. The level of intentionality and personal style makes the show pop for sure, but some might rightfully question how much of it is necessary. Daniel Sackheim picks up directing duties for the second and third episodes and the show’s curious style settles into a less noticeable cadence.
Still, despite the strength of Servant’s concept and all the stylistic and storytelling flourishes therein, this isn’t an unambiguous victory for Apple TV+. The show’s dialogue is a bit of a mess and the characterization of the Turners and Dorothy’s doting brother Julian (Rupert Grint) is remarkably thin. Ambrose, Kebbel, and Grint all do well with the roles but sometimes the inconsistency of their respective characters is just beyond their help. The death of Jericho has undoubtedly put the Turners in inconsistent, heightened emotional states, but the execution of those emotional responses just doesn’t track.
The ludicrous wealth the Turners enjoy doesn’t help either. Servant seems to want to present the Turners as a loose satire of stuffy rich white liberal types while still drawing empathy to their plight. The approach rarely works. Granted, weak characterization a pitfall for horror as a genre as who’s to say how someone would really react when confronted with potentially supernatural and/or dangerous events. It’s purely the script writers’ guess, though we can safely conclude that most of those guesses are wrong in Servant.
And that leads to another issue facing Servant: it’s not particularly scary. It’s atmospheric and creepy to be sure, but through three episodes nothing rises to the level of true horror. Again that’s predictable enough as the only thing harder to make than an effective horror movie is an effective horror TV show. Length and serialization are natural enemies of adrenaline. Some select shows are able to pull it off (The Haunting of Hill House, a season of American Horror Story here or there) but Servant is ill-equipped to do so.
Maybe this is all too harsh on Servant. The things it does well, it does really well. And the things it does poorly are the things you’d expect a TV show of this genre and this intention to do poorly. That just takes us back to the Apple TV+ of it all. Servant is a good television show. But is “good” what Apple is going for? On the current television landscape, good simply means inessential.