We return to the urban nightmare being lived by Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) — an affluent Philadelphia couple dealing (or not) with the loss of their baby son. After creepy nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) disappeared at the end of the last season, they will go to any lengths to get her — and the baby she has with her — back.
Episodes viewed: 7 of 10
Okay, bear with us. Much of what we’re about to describe will make no sense at all if you haven’t seen Servant Season 1, and possibly even less sense if you have.
Created by Tony Basgallop and exec- produced and part-directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Servant was one of the small fist of TV shows that launched with Apple TV+. And we were served an impeccable, nigh-on-impossible to categorise, thriller-horror-psychological-drama. What was clear and conclusive was that Servant was batshit crazy and beautiful with it.
Successful rich couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) — she’s a local on-air news reporter, he’s a TV chef — were dealing with the fallout of the death of their baby son, Jericho. What began as denial in the form of a ‘reborn doll’ to help Dorothy with her trauma became something close to unhinged reality when nanny Leanne (Tiger Free) turned up at their home and the doll became a living, breathing baby. Was the baby Leanne’s? Or was it Jericho brought back to life? Or had everyone been pulled into the same delusion by whatever malevolent spirit seemed to have infected the very walls of their Philadelphia home?
Season 1 was perfectly, precisely told. The human tragedy at the heart of the story expressed through a cool, crisp visual style that made both porn and metaphor (not to mention art) out of boning fish and filleting meat. It nailed the 30-minute offering: each episode pulled tight and taut. But the first noticeable thing about Season 2 — which picks up after Leanne has left with the baby and what appears to be her cult family — is that fat now clings to the bones. In parts, it’s even flabby.
The brutal, relatable catastrophe that began this story is pretty much abandoned, and any beating heart of the show with it.
As Dorothy and Sean hunt for their runaway nanny and the maybe-baby she took with her, the dread and horror are undercut by an odd lightness of tone that borders on the comedic. The brutal, relatable, truly-could-happen-to-anyone catastrophe that began this story is pretty much abandoned, and any beating heart of the show with it.
Even worse, the sumptuous filmmaking is replaced with something far more prosaic: occasionally, it’s even ordinary. Which is most surprising as helming episodes alongside Shyamalan are three female directors, including Julia Ducournau — the visionary French filmmaker behind Raw, 2016’s visceral feminist horror. Her distinctive style is lost in the wash, and though elements of her cinematic flair fight through — the edges are surprisingly softened.
Rupert Grint still impresses as Dorothy’s wine-swilling, foul-mouthed brother, Julian (wash your mouth out, Ron Weasley!). And Ambrose releases the throttle fully for a performance of even more delicious derangement. But the compelling, confounding story becomes, in moments, bland. In later episodes, maybe upon realising what’s missing, the crazy dial goes up to 11 once more. But — and the final three episodes were unavailable to view at the time of this review — it may not be enough for Servant to quite hit the heights it previously enjoyed. Shyamalan has spoken of his ambition: 60 episodes over six series. It’s a feat that will be managed if he rediscovers the bonkers story tucked inside Servant and the bold way of telling it.
The performances are still stunning, but Servant has lost much of its mystery and macabre fascination.