(This review contains spoilers for Episode 1 of Servant)
Servant, Apple TV Plus's weird little psychological thriller series, is an M. Night Shyamalan joint, so it might be helpful to go into it knowing as few plot details as possible. The logline pretty much sums up what you need to know: "Servant follows a Philadelphia couple in mourning after an unspeakable tragedy creates a rift in their marriage and opens the door for a mysterious force to enter their home." If you want to go in completely unspoiled, I suggest you stop reading. I won't be offended. But if you stay with me, I bet I can convince you to watch it if you're on the fence.
Specifically, what happens in the premiere is that a miserable married couple, chef Sean (Black Mirror's Toby Kebbell) and news reporter Dorothy Turner (Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose), hire an 18-year-old nanny named Leanne (Game of Thrones' Nell Tiger Free) to take care of their infant son, Jericho. The thing is, Jericho tragically died a few months prior. There is no baby, just a lifelike reborn doll (a real thing; click this link if you want your day ruined). Dorothy is psychotic with grief and believes the doll is real, and Sean is going along with it because he thinks it's the right thing to do to help Dorothy recover. But Leanne acts like the doll is real, too, because Leanne is...creepy. She's a religious fanatic with a disturbingly blank affect. She treats the doll like an actual baby, until suddenly, at the end of the first episode, it is.
Further episodes unspool the mystery of who Leanne is, what she wants, and where this baby came from, while piling more and more mysteries on top of the original mysteries and not really answering any of them. By the last couple of episodes of the season, you'll start to wonder how they'll possibly wrap all this up, and, well, let's just say Servant is banking on getting a second season. Every episode ends on a twist, and the weeklong wait between episodes -- which clock in at a devourable 30 minutes -- will be killer. (Apple is releasing the first three episodes on Nov. 28, with the following seven on subsequent Fridays, but it should release them all at once, because Servant makes a perfect binge.)
The streamlined runtimes mean creator Tony Basgallop's scripts have no fat on them, and the action is almost entirely contained to the Turners' gorgeous Philadelphia townhouse. It's like the whole season is a bottle episode. The tight quarters give the show a pressure-cooker claustrophobia, and forces Shyamalan-- who directs the premiere and penultimate episodes -- and the show's other directors and department heads to find novel ways to keep the show visually interesting. They do that through absolutely deranged camera angles. In the first episode, there are two scenes where the actors' faces are completely out of frame, and the center of the frame is the drinks on the table. (A few of the characters are constantly drinking, which the show doesn't make a point to point out, but you're supposed to notice. There's a lot of stuff you're supposed to notice.) Other shots are extreme close-ups on the actors' faces with shallow depth of field, which makes them look huge and unsettling, like they're staring at you with manic eyes (Ambrose) or zonked eyes (Free).
In addition to copious Apple product placement, each episode also has a food subplot and a news subplot. Sean is an experimental gourmet chef, and he's always trying out extreme recipes, which tend to involve live eels or lobster ice cream. The dishes are immaculately plated and totally unappetizing. Servant is like the anti-Hannibal in its ability to make delicious food deliberately disgusting. And Leanne always watches the 5 o'clock news as Dorothy gives a crisp newscaster-voice field report that obliquely comments on something going on in the episode. Ambrose's performance is wonderful. She's completely committed to making Dorothy as unhinged as possible. It's maximal, and contrasts with Free's performance, which is minimal. Between Thrones, Too Old to Die Young, and this, Free has basically only been called on to give very restrained performances, but she's good at it. She's like a lake with clear blue water but you can't see to the bottom.
Oh, and Harry Potter's Rupert Grint is on the show, as Dorothy's louche brother who gets fixated on figuring out Leanne's whole deal. He kinda does a Philly accent. It's very weird and very entertaining.
Servant is far from perfect. It requires a ton of suspension of disbelief, does way too much mystery-wise, and may be insensitive to mothers who have lost children. But it's creepy, compulsively watchable fun, with a distinct personality. It shows that Apple is willing to make shows that are pretty dark, pretty risky, and not particularly aspirational. It's a beautiful house, but the people who live there are lunatics who hate each other. That's the kind of setup you always want from a psychological thriller, no matter who's making it.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
premieres Thursday, Nov. 28 on Apple TV+.