Servant serves up second helping of high-key lunacy [Apple TV+ review]

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Apple TV+ show Servant returns Jan. 15 for a wonderfully mean second season.
Servant returns this Friday for a wonderfully mean second season.
Photo: Apple TV+

Servant, the brainchild of producer/director M. Night Shyamalan and writer Tony Basgallop, is back for more perversity, more cultish derangement, and more exquisitely photographed food.

The sleeper Apple TV+ hit comes roaring back for a well-deserved victory lap this Friday. And in this second season, everyone from the characters to the directors seems to know it’s time to take off the gloves.

Servant Season 2 review

In a crowded, though not overly distinguished, field, Servant was nevertheless the most interesting thing on the earliest version of the Apple TV+ slate. It had an honest-to-god director running the show in Shyamalan, who could infuse the show with the proper dread. And it had a writer, Basgallop, who had hit on one heck of a high concept: Parents with a secret hire a nanny with a bigger one.

The show was thus primed to keep shoving itself deeper into whatever bizarre corners it could to avoid telling the truth. Neither the show’s central couple, the Turners (played by Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose), nor their weird new nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) wanted to admit that there was something odd going on. And so it fell to the show’s writers and directors to ensure that even as the plot appeared to thicken, they never gave away more than tantalizing clues as to the shape of the show’s many mysteries.

By the end of the first season, only one thing was certain: Leanne was gone, and so was the baby she’d been caring for. Everything else was still more or less a complete mystery, and it was beautiful. Between the razor-sharp images of upper-class domesticity run amok and the dramatic hi-jinks, there wasn’t a dull microsecond. The second season may be even more fun because now the show doesn’t have to rely on innuendo. Servant can take stock of its stakes and charge headlong at new developments.

Dead flowers in the attic

The second season of Servant picks up in the immediate aftermath of the first. Leanne has been welcomed back into the community she escaped from, which is some form of cult run by Leanne’s “Aunt” May Markham (Alison Elliott), who was supposed to have been killed when feds raided her compound a while back. When Leanne left, she took with her the live baby she’d been caring for under the Turners’ roof.

Here’s where things get good and squirm-inducing. Sean Turner knows that everyone knows that the “baby” in the house was a doll that Dorothy had chosen to believe was real after the trauma of losing their son had warped her mind. So when Leanne replaced the doll with a real infant, Dorothy didn’t notice anything, because to her the doll was alive.

Sean, however, can’t then tell the police that their son had been kidnapped because he had no idea where the baby upstairs came from. So he, Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint) and their therapist friend Natalie (Jerrika Hinton) run interference while they figure out what’s actually taken place. This gives Dorothy just enough space and time to find Leanne and hatch a plan of her own. (Naturally, she declines to fill in her conspirators.) Whatever happens now, everybody is in far too deep into too many lies to tap out or ask for help.

I love you to death

Servant review: Toby Kebbell would anchor the Apple TV+ show but the current is too strong.
Toby Kebbell would anchor Servant but the current is too strong.
Photo: Apple TV+

The visual template for the show established by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis and Shyamalan (and ably abetted by the other series directors Isabella Eklöf, Julia Ducournau, Nimród Antal, Alexis Ostrander, Daniel Sackheim, Lisa Brühlmann, John Dahl and Shyamalan’s daughter Ishana) is one of a deep-set gothic darkness filling the cavernous bourgeoisie Philadelphia apartment in which the story unfolds.

Just as those stately houses all hide the long buried but never forgotten history of the city’s wealthy, so too did every character on the show have secrets they wished to keep.

Dreadfully beautiful

Even at its most grotesque, you simply never want to look away from Servant’s first season. There is a dreadful allure to the things the show dreams up, which shifts somewhat in the second season from exotic food prep to tormented bodies. Even the hoariest crimes of the super-rich come with a sense of gnarly voyeurism. To have the means at one’s disposal to give your life over to the criminal antics that beguile the Turners is an exciting idea, even if it’s plainly done them no good to be so wealthy.

Servant pivots on the axis of a terrible kind of love, where Sean, Julian and everybody else humors Dorothy because they don’t want to hurt her. If they had engaged in hard conversations with her to begin with, they could have avoided all of this madness. But everybody knows that’s rarely the easiest thing to do.

Why not let her pretend her son is still asleep in his crib? What harm could it do? But when you’re suddenly embroiled in a few different cases of kidnapping — some real, some imagined — it’s too late to have the hard conversations because there are a number of even more difficult ones on the way.

A full-course meal

Rupert Grint, Toby Kebbell, and Lauren Ambrose in Servant
Rupert Grint, Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose struggle with secrets in Servant.
Photo: Apple TV+

Basgallop boasts a long resume as a TV writer, but it’s tempting to believe he never really got to tell a story his way until Servant. Prestigious adaptations like To the Ends of the Earth don’t allow him to have much fun. And being in the writers room for shows like 24 and East Enders really only allows for so much personality to escape into the text.

Servant seems like the kind of thing that dropped out of his brain fully formed, a twisted and violent take on the soap opera that doesn’t skimp on trashy story beats, outsized emotions or impossible turns of events.

It may look like a horror movie (and occasionally act like one). However, this series is rightly proud of its disingenuous roots. Everything from the appearance of long-lost family members to the truly indescribable range of performance styles (I live for this show’s mix of bad American accents; they’re exactly as odd as they should be) suggests daytime television that’s been kept in solitary confinement for a few years.

The MVP might still be Boris McGiver as Uncle George. There’s scene stealing, and then there’s dramatic grand larceny, and this man deserves whatever riches he carts off.

Waiting for a third season of Servant

If I have a complaint, it’s only that I want more of Servant. Where the first season served up a slowly burning collection of mysteries, the new season takes the form of a ticking-clock potboiler. Several episodes unfold across a single day, and it’s astonishingly easy to just keep watching. Oh, and the following may be something of a spoiler. Just stop reading now if you don’t want anything forecast).

If you’re still reading: I suggest fans of this show watch the Dario Argento movies Suspiria (1977), Inferno (1980) and The Third Mother (2007) if they haven’t already. If I don’t miss my guess, they’re about to become relevant textural underpinning.

Servant season 2 comes to Apple TV+ on January 11

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.