There was a brief moment during early episodes when I was actually enjoying Servant, M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop’s new series for Apple TV+. The show has been marketed as a work of psychological horror about a young couple who have experienced unspeakable loss, and yet it functions best early on as a surreal comedy about the grotesque excesses of the modern bourgeoisie. Dorothy (played by Six Feet Under’s Lauren Ambrose) is a local TV reporter in Philadelphia with the rictus grin and terrifying positivity of a professional ballroom dancer. She’s married to Sean (Toby Kebbell), a chef and food influencer, and the couple live in a rowhouse ripped from an Architectural Digest spread, all floral wallpaper, Aesop hand wash, and $10,000 espresso machines. Sometimes Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), visits, a man whose lone defining characteristic seems to be “wine.” Servant’s cinematographer, the frequent Shyamalan collaborator Mike Gioulakis, imbues the show’s epicurean interludes with sensual horror, like an episode of Chef’s Table directed by Eli Roth.
But I also found myself wondering whether Servant was supposed to be as funny as it often was, and if intentional, whether the comedy was tonally apt. The premise of the show is chilling: It’s structured around the death of the couple’s baby, and yet it often veers toward absurdity (Sean orders food from companies named “Hare Hear Hare” and “Seesaw Seashells,” and Dorothy files cheery dispatches from inside fatbergs). Sean is troubled—spoiler ahead, although I’m not sharing anything that wasn’t revealed in the show’s trailer—because his wife has recently hired a live-in nanny to take care of “Jericho,” a rubberized doll given to her as a therapy object after their loss. Although the doll succeeded in drawing Dorothy out of her catatonic grief and psychotic breakdown, she still seems to believe months later that Jericho is real. So real, in fact, that when Dorothy prepares to go back to work she employs Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), a spookily reserved 18-year-old from Wisconsin whose commitment to Dorothy’s charade is instant, and unnerving.