For a show that’s not about the internet, Servant is one of the most online shows you can watch. Maybe it doesn’t make immediate sense – it’s a series about a couple who hire a creepy nanny and a doll that’s seemingly come to life – but the parallels are there. It’s a claustrophobic psychological thriller, set entirely in one family’s beloved Philadelphia townhouse. This family only interacts with the outside world via screens – and almost as a result, they slowly descend into a fog of paranoia and suspicion. Over time, their little island world becomes so absurd that they lose all perspective of what “normal” means, so much so that, in the third season premiere, the girl they locked up in the attic goes now part of their happy family. Servantin other words, is an excellent TV.
[Ed. note: Minor spoilers for Servant seasons 1 and 2 follow]
Created by British writer Tony Basgallop and co-executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who directs a number of episodes, Servant is an Apple TV Plus psychological thriller about Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner, a wealthy Philadelphia couple who hire the mysterious Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) as a live-in nanny for their son, Jericho. The twist in the show’s pilot is that Jericho isn’t a real boy – he’s a doll, an unlicensed therapist prescribed as a radical therapy exercise for Dorothy after the loss of their real son Jericho has him. left catatonic for a while.
That’s enough for a weird thriller on its own, but Servant keep the twists coming. At the end of the pilot, the Jericho doll is somehow alive thanks to Leanne and it is unknown if she stole a new baby to replace the doll, or if she has supernatural powers of some kind. By the time you get to season 3, which premiered on Friday, there’s a whole cult involved and a disturbing ritual to free souls, and again: it’s all happening without leaving this house.
With so much television, it’s tempting to overstate a show’s individual quirks or make a creative team’s weird idiosyncrasies seem stranger than they are – understand that even if Servant unlike anything else on TV that’s because few shows are brave enough to trap you in a house with its characters for 40 scheduled episodes of what other shows would call a bottle episode and watch three characters light up thinking their deranged behavior is okay. There might be a reason for that! Binging Servant it’s a bit like scrolling through social media for too long or eating only carbs for a week straight – you’re not indisposed and probably works fine but the levels are all wrong.
This is probably due to the fact that Servant done right: With M. Night Shyamalan setting the tone in the pilot and returning throughout, the series feels like one of his movies, a story that takes the shared dynamic of a grieving family and then, through a concept strange and uncomfortably close shots, alienating distance, oppressive and dark lighting and set design, make it all seem strange and alien again. Or Servant uses its length to its advantage in the way it then pivots halfway to sew that relief weirdness, and integrates Leanne and the possibly resurrected Jericho into a happier version of the Turner family – after a whole season of kidnapping and torture of Leanne.
One by one, outside perspectives are introduced – first in the form of Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint) and later in a character played by Spider-Man Homecoming‘s Tony Revolori – and twisted to fit in or be used by this strange found family, a family where the roles of victim and villain shift to the point where you don’t know who you’re looking at. In this, Servant is partly a show about repression and denial – there’s the initial metaphor of Dorothy’s therapeutic doll, but as the show progresses, Leanne’s past in a cruel and controlling cult becomes a priority . It is by airing things out that these people move forward and come together, and in doing so, the house becomes more a place of strength than a trap. But that’s assuming they stay honest – and Season 3 focuses on a rot from within as threats grow without.
Since Leanne and the Turners are now a family, the cult of Leanne has become a threat to that family, and the season kicks off with a character study of Leanne, alone in the house as the Turners go away for a weekend in the beach, contemplating what she found. and fearing that she would lose him. Alone, Leanne begins to feel a new paranoia – at first innocently symbolized by moths, then later more overtly by a burglar.
Like many works associated with Shyamalan, Servant is slyly and quietly funny – regular news clips airing on TV serve up hilarious non-sequences about brawls over fried chicken sandwiches or mall wind tunnels, while a game of impossibly tense charades inspires a woman to mimic a caterpillar in a fancy dress on the living room floor – but it’s also real human pain, channeled convincingly through the performances of Ambrose, Kebbell and Free.
“When something bad happens and you pretend it’s not,” Julien de Grint tells Leanne midway through Season 2, “it eats you up inside.” And again, this not-so-online show speaks to a fundamental truth of life online, which is almost entirely inextricable from normal life: it’s a world where we carry on, post and work, acting as if nothing was. How rotten, one wonders, has our normalcy become?
The first episode of Servant season 3 is now on Apple TV Plus. New episodes are released every Friday.