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The M. Night Shyamalan-produced series is the most addictive of Apple TV+'s new shows, and is the kind of creative curveball a new streaming service needs to offer.
Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose on Servant (courtesy of Apple)
The next high-profile new series to debut on Apple TV+ is unquestionably the weirdest so far- and also the best. It's Servant, the sort of big, wild creative swing that a lot of us were hoping for back when Apple's original content plans were first announced.
Servant, a psychological thriller, is creepy, unsettling and unquestionably for adults only. But it's a show with a lot of ideas, and having seen the first three episodes, there's absolutely no telling where it's going.
If you know anything about Servant, you likely know it as "the M. Night Shyamalan Apple show." All of the marketing for the series includes the phrase "from M. Night Shyamalan," and just about every news headline about the series has included his name.
However, the noted suspense auteur did not create actually Servant. The actual listed creator is Tony Basgallop, a British TV writer. Shyamalan is an executive producer and the film was produced through his production company Blinding Edge Pictures. He also directed the first episode and another later in the season, and the show was shot in his hometown and favorite location of Philadelphia.
The Night show
Shyamalan directing the first episode likely means he heavily influenced the overall look and feel of the series itself, and there's no mistaking that this feels like an M. Night production. It is a clear throwback to Shyamalan's most famous film, 1999's The Sixth Sense, between the ominous shooting of staircases and hallways and, yes, the presence of big twists. The main location is even on a Philadelphia street that resembles the one from the famous "car scene" in The Sixth Sense.
It's also notable that while Shyamalan, after a long fallow period, has had some renewed career success of late with such movies as Split and Glass, Servant is a massive creative improvement over those films.
The series' first three half-hour episodes debut November 28, with the remaining seven showing once a week, on Fridays through January 17, and the show has reportedly been renewed for a second season, although there's been no official announcement. This review is based on those first three episodes and contains light spoilers.
Baby makes three
Servant stars Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose as Sean and Dorothy, a married couple in Philadelphia. He's a chef consultant, a job that entails frequently dismembering large fish at home, and she's a local TV news reporter. As the series begins, they've hired Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) as the new nanny for their baby.
Except that their baby is dead, having succumbed to a SIDS-like illness months earlier. At the suggestion of a quack therapist, Dorothy has begun caring for a lifelike doll, the one that creeped everyone out when the trailers were unveiled earlier this fall. This therapy has helped her get over her loss, but still leaves her with a personality that's creepily off-kilter.
Except that things aren't quite what they seem, either with the baby, or with the nanny. It would be a disservice to say anything more than that.
The cast also includes Rupert Grint — Ron Weasley from Harry Potter — playing against type as Dorothy's brother, who is something of a degenerate.
The hand that rocks the cradle
There's a lot to like about Servant, starting with the creepy, twisty premise. The couple's house, which contains most of the action, is a wonderful location, and the cast is strong across the board.
Kebbell, the English actor with movie credits that include the recent Planet of the Apes movies, plays a worried and confused new father and conveys this wonderfully, even if his East Coast accent isn't quite up to par. Ambrose, best known for Six Feet Under, is a highlight as Dorothy and as someone who's worked in local TV news, her characterization as rings quite true. In fact, she's a much more believable TV news person than any character on The Morning Show.
But it's Nell Tiger Free, who played the doomed princess Myrcella on Game of Thrones, who gives the best performance on the show, as a character who's quiet and mysterious, although it's hinted that something very strange is going on below the surface.
One of the best things that can be said about Servant is that, through three episodes, the possibilities are virtually limitless as to what direction it's going. It's not even clear what the title of the series means.
The Apple factor
Since most of the launch shows on Apple TV+, with the exception of The Morning Show, are set in either the distant past or in fantastical realms, there hasn't been much chance for Apple product placement. Servant, however, does avail itself of this, with plenty of on-screen usage of iPads and FaceTime. Even so, the most haunting use of technology in the series involves not an Apple product, but rather a baby monitor.
The bottom line
But more than anything else, Servant disproves the popular notion that Apple's original shows will be safe, uncontroversial, family-friendly and free of sex.
Servant, with its difficult premise, themes of adult anxiety, and at least scene of sexuality, is absolutely none of the above. It's the sort of show — a wild and daring idea from an established and talented creator — that Apple TV+ should be lining up to make in the upcoming streaming wars.