M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant is unsettlingly good fun [Review]

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M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant is unsettlingly good fun [Review]
There's nothing creepy about a nanny cradling a fake baby, right?
Photo: Apple

A spooky nanny. A creepy baby. And a whole bunch of crazy plot twists. It can only be Servant, M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop’s psychological horror series for Apple TV+.

The series debuted on Thanksgiving, and I’ve already hungrily snarfed down the first 30-minute episode. While I’m not yet sure if it’s enjoyable junk food or a balanced, healthy meal, I liked it a whole lot. Check out my episode one Servant review.

Servant review: But is it original?

Apple TV+ calls its shows Apple Originals. In the case of Servant that’s not entirely accurate. No, it hasn’t previously been shown elsewhere, but it’s also not a concept that’s totally original. The gist of it is this: Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) are a Philadelphia couple who have tragically lost their young baby for reasons that aren’t revealed to us up front. In its place, they adopt a lifelike baby doll as a surrogate and hire a young nanny to look after it.

It’s one of those “ways to deal with trauma” things that movies and TV shows love. That would be weird enough, but there’s a whole series to fill so of course there’s more. The young nanny, Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), takes the whole thing a bit too seriously, alarming husband Sean. And then *spoiler alert* we get the next big twist: baby Jericho may not be quite so dead after all. Cue shudders.

Owes a debt to past horror

If you’re a horror flick buff, chances are that the above summary immediately reminds you of a bunch of movies. The nanny with ulterior motives is from The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.

Parents recovering from the loss of a young child who wind up in trouble is, well, everything from Don’t Look Now to Dead Calm to The Descent. A nanny looking after a fake child dolls was the premise of The Boy.

Spooky babies have been done in Eraserhead, Rosemary’s Baby, and more. And there’s a whole possible supernatural thing going on as well — kind of like an evil Mary Poppins.

The premise for Servant could have been dreamed up by writing down plot elements from the above movies, cutting them up, and then picking them out of a hat. But, you know what, this year’s iPhone looks a lot like last year’s, too. And it’s pretty great. What do I mean by this? Namely, that while the components might be derivative, what really matters is how they’re put together. And in the case of Servant they are (so far) put together very well indeed.

Servant review: Apple is bold

The show is creepy. The set pieces are effective. And the revelation at the end of episode one made me want to tune into episode two immediately.

Servant underlines once again how fearless Apple has been with its commissioning of original shows. Sure, so far its approach has involved working down a list of genres and trying to tick off as many as it can. (Fantasy? See. Science fiction? For All Mankind. Drama? The Morning Show, and so on.)

But greenlighting a show about a dead 13-week baby is pretty bold. There’s a scene in Servant in which father Sean picks up baby Jericho and accidentally hits the baby’s head on the bars of his crib. It’s a doll, of course, but it’s a shocking moment.

It’s a far cry from the “playing it safe” Apple TV+ that many (yes, myself included) feared in advance.

Servant review: Where will it go?

Right now, it’s difficult to know exactly where Servant will go — both narratively and in terms of quality. Given how many times I’ve seen elements of this story before, it’s great that I can’t guess exactly what’s going to happen. Simply taking what could be a guessable hackneyed movie concept and turning it into a multi-part TV series freshens the formula up immediately.

As for the quality thing? Followers of M. Night Shyamalan perhaps have reason to be cautious. The man can set up a high concept story like few others. He’s also known for twist endings of wildly variable quality. Whether he and Tony Basgallop can sustain Servant over the course of a 10-episode series (and another one to follow) remains to be seen.

I’m also interested in the level of quality this can achieve as a piece of horror filmmaking. That might sound a bit pretentious, but plenty of schlocky horror movies have used concepts like deceased children for pure exploitation. However, others, like the brilliant The Babadook find ways of exploring similar themes of trauma in a way that is surprising and profound.

If this show is going to truly linger and live up to its potential, I hope it’s something like the latter. Atmosphere and jump scares makes something scary while you’re watching it. But substance is what makes good horror stay under your skin afterwards.

I’ll be tuning in for more

I like Servant a whole lot. I just really, really hope that it lives up to its promise. I’ll keep tuning in to find out if it does. And that, ultimately, is all Apple can ask for.

Have you checked it out yet? What did you make of it? Let us know in the comments below.