In this installment of 3 Reasons to Watch, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s wonderfully dark television series Servant. The show, about a supernatural nanny with designs on an upper-class Philadelphia power couple and their missing baby, attracted an amazing array of directorial talent and some amazing on-screen presences.
Here’s why you should watch all four seasons of this runaway freight train of a show.
3 Reasons to Watch: Servant
Created by British TV writer Tony Basgallop, Servant follows a young woman named Leanne (played by Nell Tiger Free) who comes to the Turner family in their hour of need. When we meet Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose), she has lost her son Jericho and has taken to believing a reborn doll is her boy.
Her husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), and brother Julian (Rupert Grint) don’t want to upset Dorothy any more. So they hire Leanne to take care of the “baby.” But that’s only the beginning of the weirdness on one of the most compulsively watchable shows in the Apple TV+ catalog.
1. A raft of unbelievably fine performances
Watching Servant is like watching a competition for the most delirious, wonderfully weird performance a half-hour of TV can contain. There’s Toby Kebbell‘s attempt to drive Sean into pure affectlessness. Rupert Grint‘s deeply endearing spin on an impulsive city-born mutant. Lauren Ambrose‘s knowingly bug-eyed turn as a woman for whom the ordinary course of life has been reversed. And Nell Tiger Free‘s increasingly domineering performance as the once doe-eyed Leanne.
2. A solid serving of folk horror
The nature of Servant’s horror is a shape-shifting thing. Leanne may or may not be some kind of witch. Her cult may or may not control things beyond the natural. And there might be killers lurking around every corner.
The show’s imagery pays fleeting but charming homage to the likes of The Wicker Man, Witchhammer and Mark of the Devil, from flower-festooned zealots to medieval torture, from bloodletting to incantations. Servant is never explicit about what Leanne and her followers and captors believe, but the hints are tantalizing and keep the audience on edge.
3. The best photography on television
With M. Night Shyamalan at his peak writing the show’s playbook, Servant was bound to be stunningly and creepily photographed. He seems to have given his directing staff (a deep bench that includes Nimród Antal, John Dahl, Kitty Green and, in her impressive debut, his daughter Ishana Shyamalan) one simple directive: Shoot this like it’s the spookiest and most effective erotic psychological thriller in history.
The camera swivels, flips, spies, glides, floats and sees impossible things that keep the viewer unsettled. The effect is that we constantly feel like we’re peeping through a hole in a wall, seeing something we shouldn’t. It’s a remarkable team effort that gave us some of the most indelible images of the last five years.
Watch on Apple TV+
You can watch all four seasons of Servant on Apple TV+.
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper and But God Made Him A Poet: Watching John Ford in the 21st Century, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.