For a show that’s not about the internet, ServantIt is among the most popular online TV shows. 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. Serving as a ServantIn other words, it is great television.
[Ed. note: Minor spoilers for Servant seasons 1 and 2 follow]
Tony Basgallop (British writer) created this series and is co-produced with M. Night Shyamalan. Shyamalan also directed several episodes. Serving as a ServantThe Apple TV Plus psychological thriller follows Dorothy Ambrose and Sean Turner. They are wealthy Philadelphians that hire Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), as their live in nanny to their child, 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 Serving as a ServantKeep the surprises 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 Serving as a 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! Avoiding all things. Serving as a Servant feels a bit like scrolling social media for too long, or eating nothing but carbs for a week straight — you’re not Not wellIt is likely to be working well, however. Levels All of them are wrong.
This could be attributed to the following: Serving as a Servant It does well. M. Night Shyamalan sets the tone for the pilot, returning through the entire series, making it feel like one of his movies. The story takes the same dynamic as a grieving family, then makes the whole thing seem foreign and strange again with a bizarre concept, close shots, alienating distances, oppressive lighting, and set design. You can find it here. Serving as a 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: Spider-Man at Home’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. This is how it ends. Serving as a 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. This is the way they move forward, and it’s how they come together. The house becomes more of a refuge 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.
As with a lot Shyamalan-related work Serving as a 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. One wonders how rotten our daily routine has become.
Episode 1 of Serving as a ServantSeason 3 now available on Apple TV Plus New episodes drop every Friday.
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