SERVANT is an Apple Original series from Academy Award-nominated executive producer M. Night Shyamalan (Glass, Split, The Sixth Sense). The series is one of several new series launching on the brand new Apple TV+ streaming service. The series features a celebrated cast, which includes Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”), Toby Kebbell (Kong: Skull Island, Fantastic Four, “Black Mirror”), Nell Tiger Free (“Game of Thrones”), and Rupert Grint (Harry Potter franchise). At the time of the review, we initially had the first three episodes of the new series, but it was enough to give us a general idea of the pacing of the show and whether or not the series could sink its claws into us early on. Needless to say, the unnerving nature of the first three episodes is enough to have captivated my attention. It has also convinced me to want to press forward despite how gradually unnerving the mysteries within this series are becoming and, not going to lie, I want to see how it all ends.
The series focuses on what I assume is an upper middle class couple in Philadelphia (as most M. Night Shymalan’s projects like to touch upon or be located in) who have hired the young nanny Leanne to take care of their newborn son, Jericho. While at first, nothing seems to be too unusual when Leanne arrives, minus the extraordinary undercurrent of tension between Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell), it isn’t long before we start learning something is up. As has been revealed in the trailer (and as such shouldn’t be seen as a spoiler), Leanne has been hired to take care of a baby doll. Something happened to the real Jericho and the only thing that seemed to work to get Dorothy to move past the tragedy was giving her a hyper-realistic doll to project her motherly instincts onto. From this revelation onward, things start to get progressively more strange and, as Sean and Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint) become increasingly more suspicious of Leanne, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they appear to be.
This show is a deceptively uneasy watch. When you least expect it, you’ll find yourself tense towards the end of each episode. It is gradually unnerving and a lot of that is achieved through close-up intimate shots, well-crafted story writing within the first three episodes, and well-executed, multilayered acting from the core four performers. The tension between Dorothy and Sean doesn’t feel forced and you can tell that what happened to Jericho unearthed whatever residual tensions had been buried and unaddressed for awhile. These tensions heighten with the arrival of Leanne, who is played with an unnerving calm by Nell Tiger Free. While it becomes clear that Dorothy values Leanne’s seemingly innocent and calm presence, Sean is immediately on edge by how easy the teenager accepts that she has been brought in to take care of a baby doll. The inclusion of Dorothy’s brother Julian played with gross, smarmy elitism by Rupert Grint, stoking Sean’s paranoia about the girl does not help. Surprisingly, there is a realism of how these elements all come together that is refreshing. You can feel the natural tension radiate off the screen and it does a lot in assisting a viewer in investing in what’s going on.
I do want to put a spotlight on the close-up shots used to focus in on the characters. A good portion of the character interactions featured throughout the course of the three episodes is shot up close, providing a very honest and intimate view of the character’s faces. This is how the audience is able to quickly pick up on what the characters are feeling in the moment, which serves as a great tool. Even more so, given the fact that we, as the audience, are entering into a family life that has suffered a great tragedy that isn’t really spoken of often in American culture without shame – the loss of a newborn. These close-ups capture the ticks, the downward cast eyes, as both Dorothy and Sean try to hide and move on from the impact the tragedy had on them. And, on a whole other front, the focus on individual character’s faces in close-ups also serves to make us uncomfortable. We can’t look elsewhere in a scene that makes us uncomfortable. We have to focus on what’s playing out onscreen on the character’s face. And I think that might be an element of the series that might get overlooked because some people might not find that uncomfortable. However, for people like me, these close up shots will heighten a lack of comfort for the audience.
By the time I finished the third episode, I was completely invested in wanting to know what the heck was going on. The series had managed to find its way underneath my skin. With each episode, I could see that the mystery surrounding who Leanne is deepened. This was easily conveyed in Nell Tiger Free’s performance as Leanne, who has infused the character with intricacies and subtleties that make you second guess your assumptions of her character after episode one. SERVANT, like any well thought out mystery, has laid out a trail of breadcrumbs for you to follow. I would compare the first three episodes as being the gradual discovery of breadcrumbs, with the end of the third episode marking the start of the path that leads you deeper into the dark, forbidden forest. This is also when you’ll start questioning what are the true intentions behind each character and feel your desire to see things through until the end grow stronger as a result. Either way, I can’t wait to see what lies at the end of this journey.
SERVANT is a ten-episode series. The first three episodes will be available on Apple TV+ starting on November 28th, with a brand new episode airing each week after there. Keep your eyes out for our recaps on the series and follow along as we discover the mystery of the titular SERVANT.