Watching the first season of ‘Servant’ (Apple has already ordered a second), you may have a more pressing question: Just what the heck is it?
Centring on a slightly awful couple of young urban professionals and the slightly creepy Wisconsin teenager they hire as a live-in helper, the story feints in numerous well-tested directions. Is the nanny evil? Is the mom psycho? Is the baby demonic? Is the house possessed? All possibilities are kept in play; the various tropes employed less like the escalating steps of a horror tale than like the stock, rotating elements of a situation comedy.
The overall feel is knowingly low-key, deadpan comic and, perhaps intentionally, a little airless, as if the action were taking place inside one of the sous-vide bags employed by the husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), a chef without a restaurant. The only significant violence is done by Sean to a succession of animals both living and dead — rabbit carcasses, writhing eels, lobsters, crickets, blowfish. It’s an amusing way (if your moral sensibilities can take it) to get some visceral jolts into what is otherwise an exercise in atmosphere and gentrifying-Gen-Xer satire, a show that almost feels apologetic about its attempts to scare you.
The action, such as it is, plays out almost entirely inside or within view of a handsome, darkly furnished Philadelphia town house, where Sean lives in a state of suspended animosity with his wife, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), a well-known TV reporter. (We get glimpses of the outside world through Dorothy’s segments, in which Ambrose’s reproduction of the professional forced cheer of local news is uncannily authentic.) She praises his cooking while mocking his general uselessness; he dotes on her fragility while pointing out that they haven’t had sex for a year.
The Philadelphia setting and the claustrophobic location are Shyamalan trademarks. And then there’s the big twist, or the succession of twists, which in his movies can totally substitute for dramatic complication and character development. That’s less the case here, but they still do a lot of work.
The first comes very early and will be spoiled here for the sake of clarity. In the premiere episode, portentously directed by M Night Shyamalan with a lot of odd framing and looming close-ups, Sean and Dorothy welcome the dowdy, pious, unworldly Leanne (Nell Tiger Free). She’s been hired to care for their baby, Jericho, but — as Sean has warned her — Jericho is actually a doll, a therapy device employed after they lost the real Jericho and Dorothy suffered a breakdown.
That’s No 1. Twist No 2 comes at the end of the episode and sets the show on its various courses. There’s a straightforward psychological thriller about a squabbling family (Rupert Grint completes the central cast as Dorothy’s brother) in a possibly haunted house with a possibly deranged employee, featuring some minor body horror and a little trendy doubling of Dorothy’s and Leanne’s characters. And there’s a mordant comedy of manners about a group of privileged, oversharing narcissists furiously pretending that there isn’t something totally weird going on right in front of them.
Enjoying this calls for the usual severe suspension of disbelief, which is facilitated by some plot devices: Very few people know about the baby’s death (even though Dorothy is a local celebrity); Sean doesn’t want to upset Dorothy because he loves her and because he’s a passive-aggressive milquetoast.
Kebbell, Grint and the brilliant Ambrose (whose performance settles down after some first-episode histrionics) do their best to sell the story. Free, who played Cersei and Jaime Lannister’s daughter in ‘Game of Thrones’, is likeable but doesn’t make a strong impression.
Enjoyment also requires some patience, as creator Tony Basgallop pipettes the suspense over five hours, egregiously stretching out the flashbacks that eventually explain what really happened to Jericho and gradually cluing us in to the truth, familial and religious, with regard to Leanne (twists Nos 3 and 4). When the answers come in the last few episodes, in partial, cliffhanger form, you may not feel that they’re sufficient return on your investment of time. But you’ll have received a pretty detailed tutorial on how to skin a live eel.
Don’t miss it!
‘Servant’ is now streaming on Apple TV Plus. Watch the trailer below: