For a show that’s not about the internet, Servant is one of the most online shows you can watch. Perhaps that doesn’t make immediate sense — it’s a series about a couple hiring a creepy live-in nanny and a baby doll that seemingly came to life — but the parallels are there. It’s a claustrophobic psychological thriller, entirely set in one family’s expensive Philadelphia townhouse. Said family only interacts with the outside world via screens — and almost as a result, they slowly descend into a haze of paranoia and suspicion. Over time, their insular little world becomes so nonsensical they lose all perspective of what “normal” means, to the point that, in the third season premiere, the girl they locked up in the attic is now a member of their happy family. Servant, in other words, is great TV.
[Ed. note: Minor spoilers for Servant seasons 1 and 2 follow]
Created by British writer Tony Basgallop and co-executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, who directs a number of episodes, Servant is an Apple TV Plus psychological thriller about Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner, a wealthy Philadelphia couple that hires the mysterious Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) to be their live-in nanny for their son, Jericho. The twist in the show’s pilot is that Jericho is not a real boy — he’s a doll an unlicensed therapist prescribed as a radical therapy exercise for Dorothy after the loss of their real son Jericho left her catatonic for some time.
That’s enough for an eerie thriller alone, but Servant keeps the twists coming. By the end of the pilot, the doll Jericho is somehow alive thanks to Leanne and it’s not clear if she stole a new baby to replace the doll, or if she has supernatural powers of some nature. By the time you get to season 3, which premiered on Friday, there’s a whole cult involved and a disturbing ritual for freeing souls, and again: all of it happens without leaving this one house.
With so much TV out there, it’s tempting to oversell a show’s individual quirks or to make a creative teams’ weird idiosyncrasies seem stranger than they are — understand that while Servant does feel like nothing else on TV, it’s because few shows are brave enough to trap you in a house with its characters for a planned 40 episodes’ worth of what other shows would call a bottle episode and watch as three characters gaslight each other into thinking their deranged behavior is okay. Maybe there’s a reason for that! Binging Servant feels a bit like scrolling social media for too long, or eating nothing but carbs for a week straight — you’re not unwell and probably functioning okay but the levels are all wrong.
Arguably this is due to what Servant does well: With M. Night Shyamalan setting the tone in the pilot and returning throughout, the series feels like one of his films, a story that takes the common dynamic of a grieving family and then, through a strange concept and uncomfortably close shots, alienating distance, and oppressively dark lighting and set design, makes it all seem strange and foreign again. Where Servant uses its length to its advantage is in how it then pivots at its midpoint to sew that strangeness backup, and integrates Leanne and the maybe-resurrected Jericho into a happier version of the Turner family — after a whole season of kidnapping and torturing Leanne.
One by one, outside perspectives are brought in – first in the form of Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint) and later in a character played by Spider-Man Homecoming’s Tony Revolori — and warped to fit in or be used by this strange found family, one where the roles of victim and villain shift to the point where you’re not sure who you’re looking at anymore. In this, Servant is partly a show about repression, and denial — there’s the initial metaphor of Dorothy’s therapeutic baby doll, but as the show goes on, Leanne’s past in a cruel, controlling cult becomes a focus. Airing things out is how these people move forward and come together, and as they do the house becomes more of a place of strength than a trap. But that presumes they stay honest — and season 3 is focusing on a rot from within as threats build without.
Since Leanne and the Turners are now a family, Leanne’s cult has become a threat to that family, and the season kicks off with a character study of Leanne, alone in the house as the Turners head out for a beach weekend, contemplating what she’s found and fearing that she may lose it. Alone, Leanne begins to feel a new paranoia — at first innocuously symbolized by moths, then later more overtly by a burglar.
Like a lot of Shyamalan-associated work, Servant is slyly, quietly funny — regular news clips playing on TV serve as delirious nonsequiturs about brawls over fried chicken sandwiches or mall wind tunnels, while a game of incredibly tense charades inspires one woman to mime a caterpillar in an evening dress on the living room floor — but it’s also concerned with real human ache, compellingly funneled through Ambrose, Kebbell, and Free’s performances.
“When something bad happens, and you pretend that it didn’t,” Grint’s Julien tells Leanne midway through season 2, “it eats your insides.” And once again, this not-very-online show speaks to a fundamental truth of online life, which is almost entirely inextricable from regular life: It’s a world where we carry on, posting and working, acting as if nothing bad is happening. How rotten, one wonders, has our normal become?
The first episode of Servant season 3 is now on Apple TV Plus. New episodes drop every Friday.