The Callous Horror of Servant

M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop’s new series has a richly chilling premise, but it doesn’t do justice to parental grief.


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.

There’s so much to mine here. Servant could be a series about the otherworldliness of grief, and the ways in which it seems to fragment and distort reality. A more thoughtful show might be a meditation on the peculiar anxiety and fraught social dynamics of trusting your children to the care of total strangers, like Leïla Slimani’s searing 2016 novel, The Perfect Nanny. Because Servant is shot almost entirely within Dorothy and Sean’s rowhouse, I wondered whether the home itself might be a malign presence, a Shirley Jackson character all on its own.

Servant, though, doesn’t seem to have the emotional curiosity to earn its premise. As with any work with Shyamalan’s name attached, there are twists along the way and unpleasant guests who arrive out of the blue, all of which refocuses the show away from parental grief and onto what amounts to a much more generic, potboiled mystery. From the beginning, there’s a fascinating contrast between Dorothy and Leanne, the scarily extroverted TV reporter and the painfully reticent teenager. If Dorothy and Sean are 21st-century avatars of yuppie privilege, Leanne feels ripped from a Gothic novel, from her porcelain features to her Victorian wardrobe. (It’s also inevitably suspicious when a contemporary teenager doesn’t have a phone or an email account, let alone an attachment to Instagram.)

(Apple TV+)

When the show isn’t emphasizing, via squeaky violin tremolos and dead eels, that there’s Really Something Wrong With the Nanny, it’s painting Dorothy as a more mundane kind of monster. Dorothy repeatedly tells Sean that Leanne and her $900-a-month salary are a total steal; she later drags Leanne shopping and gives her an advance from her next paycheck to buy shoes (only to then ask to borrow them). And this is the truly uncomfortable part of Servant: It urges you, over and over, to loathe and condemn a woman whose baby has died. Look at the spectacle of this woman’s delusion, the series seems to say, lingering on the frozen plasticity of Jericho’s features. Note her narcissism, her vanity, the ridiculousness of her newscasts. All six of the show’s executive producers are men and all 10 episodes are written by Basgallop, which perhaps makes it unsurprising that Servant, far from sketching out the contours of maternal grief, instead treats Dorothy with such casual disdain.

As Servant unravels the mystery of what happened to Dorothy and Sean—and to their child—it’s propulsive in a caustic kind of way. Sean is the mournful yin to Dorothy’s manic yang, a stay-at-home chef whom Kebbell (who starred as a different kind of haunted husband in the Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You”) loads with quiet intelligence and creative energy. Dorothy’s grief is portrayed as bizarre in its depth, with its dolls and nannies and inconvenient catatonia. In the first episode, Shyamalan as director emphasizes the oddness of Dorothy’s enthusiasm, filling the screen with Ambrose’s manic grin. Sean, by contrast, is a model of stoic sufferance and emotional texture, waiting until he’s alone at night to quietly weep. If Dorothy’s job is ridiculous, Sean’s ingenuity as a chef—and the alchemy with which he turns slabs of dead meat and fish into works of art—is the most interesting part of the series.

But when Servant turns to Leanne, it tends to deflate like the balloon filled with atomized heather that Sean uses to enhance a dinner of boiled haggis. Part of the problem is structural—to suspend its plot out over 10 episodes instead of a single feature-length movie, Servant needs to keep viewers guessing as to whether Leanne is a magical nanny or a demonic one, a victim or a monster. In practice, though, this just means that Leanne has no consistency as a character. She’s totally innocent in some scenes, sexually predatory in others; sometimes painfully shy, sometimes malevolent. Free has the angelic face and long dark hair of a doll herself, and she’s a charismatic presence onscreen. But her character is a patchwork of tropes, and the show’s conclusion only renders her more perplexing.

In the final five episodes, Servant descends into farce, a kind of opposite-day Mary Poppins morality play. To this, Basgallop adds heavy religiosity, grotesque caricatures of rural Americans, and a decaying hunk of meat whose symbolism is both entirely tasteless and shoutingly unsubtle. There are flashbacks, and revelations. Rupert Grint shouts at a detective on FaceTime and opens endless bottles of Burgundy. Apple TV+ has already renewed Servant for a second season, because content is paramount and because maybe enough people will be hate-watching to make this kind of commitment worthwhile. But in this particular moment, there are far better and more edifying ways to waste five hours. Wine would be a start.