‘Servant’ indulges in its own aesthetic

Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 6:43pm

NOSELL

Apple+

Every scene of “Servant” is gorgeous, highly stylized and utterly overindulgent. Set in a historical Philadelphia brownstone, M. Night Shyamalan’s newest series complements its odd premise and hallmark suspense with a flawless aesthetic. 

After the death of their child Jericho, rich couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose, “Six Feet Under”) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell, “Fantastic Four”) are unable to handle their grief. Rendered nearly catatonic, Dorothy begins transitional object therapy and takes care of a doll in the place of her son. Tired of enabling her illness, her husband confides in her brother Julian (Rupert Grint, “Snatch”) about how to prevent Dorothy from being further consumed by grief for her son.

Without Sean’s knowledge, Dorothy hires Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free, “Game of Thrones”) as the Jericho doll’s full-time nanny. Much to Sean’s surprise, Leanne is entirely unfazed by Dorothy’s situation and treats Jericho the doll as if it were a real child. A shy girl from Wisconsin, Leanne struggles to adapt to the upper class lifestyle of the Turners and shocks the parents by praying nightly and hanging crosses in the baby’s nursery. 

Suspicious of some of Leanne’s odder behavior, Sean avoids interacting with her and buries himself in his work. One night after Leanne returns from walking Jericho through the park, Sean hears a noise on the baby monitor, runs to the nursery and finds a real baby has replaced the doll. Concerned Leanne or Dorothy has stolen this child, Sean and Julian investigate where exactly the baby and Leanne came from. 

While the premise of “Servant” is not necessarily new in the thriller genre, the series masterfully blends some well-used horror tropes with fresh visuals and dialogue. The show uses the artifice of luxury to mask a deep psychological suffering occurring within the family. Leanne, the plain, understated antithesis to the Turners’s appearance-based lifestyle, is framed as exponentially creepy by simply existing in the wealthy space which rejects anything genuine. Sean continually refers to her as “staff” and refuses to accept her or her odd behaviors.

Like many horror movies, “Servant” addresses gender as an aspect of its most disturbing themes. Within the Turners marriage, though Dorothy may have a tenuous grip on reality, Sean is the one tortured by the subtle evils in his home. Frustrated with his wife and the changes in house, Sean has lost whatever control he once had and scrambles to blame Leanne for whatever may be happening to him. While what he experiences is undoubtedly real, his questioning of his own sanity mimics the gaslighting female characters in similar thrillers often face. 

In recruiting his brother-in-law Julian, Sean searches for any answer that could discredit Dorothy and Leanne or explain how the doll was replaced. As he fails to understand what happens to him, he slowly becomes more violent and lashes out at those around him. “Servant” relies heavily on an underlying sense of increasing claustrophobia, as few scenes take place outside the strangeness of the Turners’s home. Essentially trapped in his home with a mysterious nanny and a child he believes may have been abducted, Sean cannot escape someone else’s fantasy. 

“Servant” may seem like another attempt at a highly stylized Shyamalan comeback, but — plot twist — the show actually has some hidden depths worth exploring. However trite the concept, some of the show’s most shocking moments and cliffhangers are genuinely compelling and exciting. Moving forward, “Servant” has the potential to truly embrace its aesthetic and plunge entirely into its disturbing atmosphere.