You might get a laugh or two, but this show is more disjointed, and more foul, than the original.
“Everything you can imagine is real,” Pablo Picasso once said.
But is that really true? Or do we simply like to imagine it is?
These are relevant questions as we open up the curious story of Apple TV+’s much-anticipated series Servant. And asking these questions also allows us to give a bit of space to the spoiler warning we must give before we go any farther. Created by Tony Basgallop and directed by twisty horrormeister M. Night Shyamalan, Servant offers an inescapable twist in the very first episode—and they just keep coming.
You have been warned.
Sean and Dorothy Turner are affluent, successful, seemingly happy Philadelphians. She’s a television reporter. He’s a “professional bon vivant” who whips up decadent, glamorous meals from home. They’re living an upscale version of the American dream filled with good food, expensive wine and a little baby named Jericho.
But here’s the thing: Jericho’s dead. Sean saw the body. Dorothy couldn’t take the loss: She suffered a psychotic breakdown, and a counselor suggested that a realistic “reborn” doll might help ease Dorothy’s suffering and defer her grief a bit. It didn’t quite work as intended: for three months, Dorothy treated the thing like a real, breathing infant, and Sean played along.
But when the couple hired a nanny, Leanne, to take care of their rather undemanding “child,” something strange—something some might call miraculous—happened. A real baby showed up.
Sean is a sensible, secular man. He knows that dolls don’t just turn into babies, à la some modern version of Pinocchio. The kid had to come from somewhere. And Sean thinks he knows who put him there.
But there’s something strange about Leanne and the cult that it turns out she came from. It seems that she and the cult’s other members have the power to grant wishes, after a fashion … and lay down curses. Though the cult seems vaguely Christian, its members seem to have stepped into God’s own shoes: The cult giveth, and the cult taketh away.
And as Season 2 begins, the cult has taken away Jericho—sending Dorothy careening out of control again and forcing Sean to both ponder, and do, the unimaginable.
Servant is a chilling tale, to be sure—both seemingly psychological and supernatural, a mystery story by turns horrific and darkly funny. (It’s also got more cooking than many an actual cooking show to boot.)
And it has plenty on its mind. Through its prism, Basgallop’s story pokes at the Turners’ veneer of 21st-century upscale secular hedonism (and, in so doing, explores our own comfort-loving society). And it speculates about the deeper, perhaps darker, primal powers that lie underneath.
The mysterious nanny Leanne is a bit doll-like herself at times, which allows her a certain unsettling ambiguity. Is this 18-year-old woman the Wisconsin ingénue she seems to be? Is she a two-faced temptress with designs on Sean? On Dorothy? On everyone? Is she an angel? A witch? A baby snatcher? A body snatcher?
Those themes and elements are cooked in a cauldron filled with Freudian id and unease. And the show’s weekly dish can make you nauseous.
You can take that statement quite literally, by the way. Sean’s gluttonous dishes sometimes involve prepping edible critters while they’re still alive. One such scene, filmed in excruciating detail, causes Leanne to faint and just might make sensitive viewers do the same.
But Servant is troubling in other ways, too: Characters have erotic and unseemly encounters. Sex and sexuality—including feints toward same-sex attraction and forbidden relationships—become important themes. Language can be quite harsh as well and, naturally, uncensored. And characters drink a lot. Dorothy’s brother, Julian, rarely visits her and Sean without guzzling a bottle of wine or swilling some good whiskey.
The latter is done with a purpose, of course: It’s the story’s way of highlighting the characters’, and perhaps society’s, dissolute tendencies. And I think that the story, as it goes on, may have some interesting (though not necessarily encouraging) things to say about faith.
But the show’s aspirations, whatever they may be, don’t diminish its defects. They say revenge is dish best served cold; Servant may be a dish best not served at all.
Jericho’s gone now, and Leanne is, too—back to the embrace of the Church of the Lesser Saints. Dorothy, naturally, is panic-stricken, and desperate to get “her” baby back. Sean is panicked, too: He and Dorothy, after all, had knowingly kept someone else’s baby in their house for a while now without telling anyone. When Julian (Dorothy’s brother and Sean’s in-the-know friend) spots a baby bottle in the fridge, he says that it’s just that sort of evidence that could get them all locked up for 20 years.
Sean holds his hand over a hot active stove, burning his hand horrifically (but apparently not feeling much of anything). Later he begins slicing holes in the obscenely large blisters, much to his satisfaction. When Sean asks Dorothy what she’d do if she knew that Jericho was, without a doubt, dead, Dorothy says she’d follow him into death as long as there was “a one in billion chance” that she’d meet him in the afterlife. (She says that’s what any good mother would do.)
Sean mentions that he dunked the real baby Jericho in holy water. He finds Leanne’s Bible with his name scrawled in the margins: The section of the Bible is labeled “The Test of Leprosy.” Dorothy wears a cross necklace. Sean has a fly tattooed on his wrist. Dorothy watches footage of a memorial service for the Church of the Lesser Saints (most of whose members supposedly died in an explosion). In the footage, Dorothy interviews one couple who allege that one cult member “revived” their daughter after she was hit by a car. In flashback, we see the body of the real Jericho removed from Sean and Dorothy’s house by someone wearing a hazmat suit. An officer on duty said the baby had been dead for “three or four days.”
We see a semi-nude woman in a painting. Dorothy discovers a secret camera that Sean installed in Leanne’s room. (She assumes that the cult was spying on them through the camera, a notion that Sean does not deny.) People drink wine and talk about drugging Dorothy. (Dorothy’s homeopathic therapist does wind up putting melatonin in her tea.) We hear 15 f-words and one s-word. God’s name is misused twice.
Dorothy and Sean Turner hire Leanne, an 18-year-old Wisconsinite, to be their live-in nanny. When the “baby” Leanne is supposedly caring for turns out to be a doll, Sean expects Leanne will have plenty of questions. Instead, she seems to take to “Jericho” as if he was a real child. And that’s not the only thing about Leanne that bothers Sean.
Sean catches Leanne fervently praying beside her bed one night, and he’s deeply troubled by it. “I don’t care what she believes,” he says. “I just don’t want it in the house. I don’t want her trying to get into your head.” Dorothy jokes that perhaps Sean would’ve preferred a “lap-dancing Satanist” to take the job. “Who cares if she brings a little God into our world?” Dorothy tells Sean.
But faith is painful, it seems. When Sean snoops through Leanne’s belongings, he finds a crude cross made from wood and straw—and it gives him a splinter. (Blood drips from the wound and into the drawer that Sean’s shuffling through.)
We see both Leanne and Dorothy take baths. Nothing critical is shown, though we see plenty of Dorothy’s skin through the jacuzzi bubbles. Dorothy complains of mastitis: While Dorothy takes a bath, Leanne comes in and massages her breasts to free the blockage in an erotically charged scene that strategically avoids complete breast nudity).
Dorothy and Sean joke about and discuss themes related to potential infidelity with the nanny. There’s also a conversation about his masturbation habits. Sean complains that he doesn’t want to worry about the nanny judging him for drinking wine in the afternoon.
Speaking of drinking, Sean does so frequently—gulping down a few glasses of whiskey and seltzer with his friend (and Dorothy’s brother) Julian. (Julian refers to the booze as “lunch”.) Wine is consumed at all times of the day, and one character smokes.
Sean treats the doll like a doll when Dorothy isn’t looking—hitting its head against the crib once and throwing it to the ground once (to the apparent disapproval of Leanne). Characters use the f-word four times, the s-word twice. We also hear very crass terms for female body parts.
Sean is deeply disturbed that his wife’s doll—a tool she had psychotically clung to when her real child died—has, apparently, been replaced by a real baby. She suspects Leanne of stealing someone else’s baby, but no one who fits the profile seems to be looking for a missing infant in town. Sean’s also sick of Leanne’s piety. He rips down a rudimentary wooden cross that she had hung over Joshua’s crib and stuffs it down the garbage disposal. Is it a coincidence that he starts getting splinters in his hands, his feet, his rear and even in his throat?
All of those thorns are explainable—to Sean, at least. The dish his wife cooked up that night involved something that could’ve dissolved into splinters: He gags on a huge, two-inch sliver in the bathroom. He examines his (partially exposed) rear and finds several other shards of wood embedded there. His wife, Dorothy, painfully plucks them out with tweezers, then suggests that he flip over so she can examine his (ahem) other side. (He demures angrily, pointing out that they haven’t had sex for a full year.) Sean also steps on a splinter that clearly causes him a great deal of pain.
Leanne steps into a bathtub and submerges her whole, unblinking self in the water. (We see her from the shoulders up.) Dorothy rubs lotion on her stretchmarks (we see her in a bra) and later tells Sean that a young intern at work is moving up rapidly: She insinuates that it’s because the intern performed several sexual favors on her employers. Julian, Dorothy’s brother, comes over for a birthday dinner and pours out champagne to everyone, including 18-year-old Leanne (who agrees to have some “just to toast with”). People drink wine and whiskey, too.
Leanne notices the missing cross and makes another one. Characters use the f-word more than a dozen times. We also hear people say “s—,” “h—,” “t-ts” and “p—y.” God’s name is misused twice.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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