The first episode of the Apple TV+ horror series Servant, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, ends with a gut-punch moment that's more of a cliffhanger than a twist, but is exactly the kind of rug-pulling tactic that people expect from Shyamalan, and that he pulls off masterfully in his best movies. The episode introduces well-off Philadelphia couple Sean and Dorothy Turner, who seem to have recently had a child and are hiring a nanny to help around the house. Sean (Toby Kebbell) is a restaurant consultant who mostly works at home, devising elaborate new dishes for sophisticated eateries. Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) is a TV reporter for the local news.
As the show opens, they welcome 18-year-old Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to their home, where she's traveled from Wisconsin to take care of their son Jericho. Leanne is withdrawn and taciturn, with shifty eyes and an eerie bearing. She might as well have been hired from Creepy Nannies, Inc. But Dorothy is overjoyed to have this obviously sinister woman in their home, welcoming Leanne with open arms and gushing over how much Jericho will love her. Sean is far less enthused, and in a disturbing scene that Shyamalan shoots from inside the baby's crib, we see why: Sean picks up Jericho and casually bangs the baby against the side of the crib, since he's not a baby at all. He's a "reborn doll," a frighteningly lifelike replacement for the actual baby who died at 13 weeks.
Sean explains to Leanne that his wife had a psychotic break following Jericho's death, and that Sean and Dorothy's brother Julian (Rupert Grint) have decided to let Dorothy believe that the doll is their son, not telling anyone outside the family what really happened. Instead of reacting with shock or sympathy, Leanne merely continues treating the doll as a real baby, even when Dorothy isn't around, and at the end of the episode, Sean, home alone working, hears something impossible on the baby monitor. He walks into the nursery and there, instead of the reborn doll, is a living, breathing, cooing baby.
It's a great set-up for a feature film, although not necessarily, as subsequent episodes demonstrate, an ongoing story, since following that initial reveal, the show spins its wheels for the next several episodes. To keep the story going, the characters are forced to make irrational decisions, starting with Sean and Julian's choice to keep the whole thing secret, rather than calling the authorities on this strange woman who's brought an unknown baby into the house. They barely even confront Leanne, instead working behind her back to learn more about her mysterious background, while continuing to placate Dorothy with the illusion that the actual Jericho is still alive.
Vaguely bad things keep happening in the Turner household, but nothing that provides the same immediate jolt as the baby-swapping reveal. Sean keeps getting painful splinters of unknown origin. Leanne builds homemade crosses that look like something out of Midsommar. Dorothy has occasional fugue moments, staring off into the void. Sean loses his sense of taste, which is the basis of his livelihood. Leanne flagellates herself with a power cord like an ancient Catholic penitent.
It's all stylishly and methodically staged and shot, with subsequent directors taking their cue from Shyamalan's work on the first episode, shooting even mundane conversations from odd angles and giving every interaction the sense that it could turn deadly at any moment. The problem is that none of those interactions do turn deadly, or even go beyond very veiled threats and insinuations. Each episode provides just enough suspense to maintain interest in what happens next, and it helps that the episodes run only about 30 minutes each, generally built around one disquieting theme or incident.
It's not until the sixth episode, though, that there's any real forward momentum in the story of what Leanne is after with her scheme (which hasn't even been confirmed as her doing), and some viewers may not have the patience to hold out until that point. There are rewards along the way, though, including Free's quietly menacing performance, which contrasts with Kebbell's everyman earnestness and Ambrose's sometimes manic intensity. Ambrose's mannered line readings can get a bit irritating, but they emphasize the way that everything happening in the Turners' house is just slightly off. The action almost never leaves the house, creating a claustrophobic sense of the family cut off from the outside world.
The more surreal and ethereal the tone, the better the show works, since the characters' actions make little rational sense, especially as they double down on keeping Leanne in the house while she is clearly nefarious and dangerous. The situation may strain believability too much as the series goes on (even more so if it extends into multiple seasons), but creator Tony Basgallop, Shyamalan and the other directors (including talented filmmakers like Nimrod Antal and John Dahl) generate enough creepy atmosphere to sustain the meager narrative.
Starring Toby Kebbell, Lauren Ambrose, Nell Tiger Free, and Rupert Grint, the first three episodes of Servant premiere Nov. 28 on Apple TV+, with subsequent episodes each Friday.