Apple TV+ is probably having the toughest go in the streaming wars. It is a tech company, not an entertainment studio and it launched with very few offerings, most of which have received middling reviews. The next to debut, the mysterious Servant, probably won’t sell anyone on signing up but it will definitely give everyone something to talk about.
Though M. Night Shyamalan’s name looms large over this one, Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon) is the writer and creator of Servant. But as you can imagine, Apple was likely betting on Shyamalan’s brand to carry this thriller that’s also something more. Servant definitely isn’t a “twist” tale but there is a hefty pile of secrets everywhere you look and it will keep you guessing through the end of its 10 episodes. (Unlike some of Apple’s other titles, Servant has yet to be renewed.) There’s one big reveal in the premiere not telegraphed in the teasers that will likely hook you if you weren’t already hooked by the creepy baby doll.
The series stars Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) and Toby Kebbell (Black Mirror) as Dorothy and Sean Turner, a couple going through a rough patch in their marriage due to the unexpected death of their child. Rupert Grint (of Harry Potter fame) plays Dorothy’s substance-using brother Julien, while Nell Tiger Free (Game of Thrones’ Myrcella Baratheon) joins the Turners in their home as a nanny Leanne....for a baby doll that was given to Dorothy after she had a mental health crisis following the sudden death.
If there’s one thing I need to get across to you about Servant it’s that it’s uncomfortable. In every way possible. From viewing incredibly private moments in the Turners’ Philadelphia brownstone to scenes filled with heavy silence and cameras too close to their subjects, Basgallop keeps viewers feeling unsettled at every turn. The Turners are rich, and snobby about it. Their marriage is troubled both superficially and on its deepest levels.
And the nanny...well, let’s just say you would not want Leanne sleeping under your roof. Exuding innocence and naïveté on the surface, Leanne’s true nature is an enigma. Why is she perfectly fine caring for a fake infant? Why does she stare at you silently when you ask her a direct question? And where did all these splinters come from?? This is all to say, if you’re a rubbernecker, you’ll probably love Servant and won’t be able to look away.
You might also love it if you’re a foodie.
Kebbell’s Sean is an upscale chef who creates recipes to sell to even more upscale restaurants. The Turners’ kitchen is a constant science experiment filled with bizarre culinary concoctions most of us wouldn’t dare eat (you could say there’s a small air of Hannibal here, but the dishes aren’t quite that beautifully presented). He’s overly occupied with his creations and extensive wine collection, which you could reason he was distracting himself with if it wasn’t made clear he was always kind of a jerk. Ambrose’s Dorothy is equally unlikable but her phenomenal performance will pull you in any way. She’s obviously been through a trauma—how much and what kind won’t be made clear until much later in the season—but her myriad of expressions from bizarre circumstance to bizarre circumstance allows for some humor. Grint also shines as Julien, adding another frantic layer to an already tense environment.
But it’s Free’s Leanne who really steals the show. Nothing can really prepare you for this performance. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on shy, small-town, religious Leanne a whole new layer is presented, only to be locked up tightly once more as if it never existed. Why does she hang up a cross in the nursery without asking permission? Why does she...eat so much soup? Why we are drawn to her even though something is clearly very suspect is at least clear—Free engulfed this role. There are so many questions surrounding the character though, and sadly, not many of them are answered.
Should you watch Servant? I’ve been debating that question since I started it. There’s an odd curiosity to it that kept me wanting to see what would happen next, so I suppose in that aspect it did its job. The episodes are only a half-hour, and unlike another recently premiered streaming series, you actually feel like you’re getting a significant amount of story in each installment. Basgallop’s creation is certainly something you’ve never seen before and if it doesn’t get a second season (or was meant to be done in one) you may walk away slightly dissatisfied, but you’ll know you went on one hell of a ride.
Servant begins streaming with the first three episodes November 28 on Apple TV+.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our new Instagram @io9dotcom.