By Ben Hiett
All that to say, “Servant” surprised me. Indeed, I was expecting a taut psychological thriller series that would mess with my head and make me question what was really going on underneath the surface. What I got was a genre-bending enigma of a show that refuses to be categorized, shifting gears the second you think you’ve gotten its intentions pinned down.
Created by Tony Basgallop and executively produced by M. Night Shyamalan, “Servant” follows a Philadelphia couple after they lose their newborn Jericho in a tragic accident. Reduced to a catatonic state, grieving mother Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) is given a “reborn” doll replica of Jericho by her therapist in an effort to help ease the psychological trauma. Repressing her memories of the accident, Dorothy starts living life as though nothing has happened, leaving her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) and brother Julian (Rupert Grint) to play along with the ruse all while privately grappling with their own grief.
Things change, however, with the arrival of Leanne, an young live-in nanny that Dorothy has hired to care for “Jericho” while she returns to her job as a reporter. Sean, humoring his wife for the time being, attempts to explain the situation to Leanne in private but is shocked when she begins to dutifully care for the doll as though nothing were amiss. His shock is only increased when strange, seemingly supernatural events start to occur, all linking back to Leanne.
Right out the gate, I must praise this show in terms of its filmmaking; this series has the best cinematography, sound design and production quality of any I’ve ever seen. So much of the storytelling and tone-setting is accomplished through the ways shots are framed, the sound is mixed and story beats are paced. Tense conversations are shot in shallow-focus close-ups with the actors speaking directly into the camera. Culinary sequences showing Sean preparing various animals to be cooked emphasize every visceral rip, cut and crunch, highlighting the disturbing details of what would otherwise be visually stunning montages.
Much of the visual filmmaking gives the series its deliberately slow-burn pacing. In an interview, M. Night, who grew up in an Indian household, explained how the show is more methodically paced than Western shows to challenge those audiences’ preconceptions for how a story should be told. For your average American TV-watcher like me, the experience is fresh and surreally therapeutic. Shots track ominously down the shadowy hallways and spiraling staircase of the Turner’s luxurious yet claustrophobic townhouse, allowing you to fully inhabit the space.
In fact, for almost the entire show, the viewer never leaves the Turner household, yet this limitation turns out to be a strength rather than a weakness. The story doesn’t sweep you up on a grand adventure filled with heart-pounding action or even brutal horror; instead, it asks you to take an extended stay in the home of a dysfunctional family and watch as their refusal to acknowledge the truth makes their lives increasingly complex and convoluted. In the same interview, M. Night also noted that he wanted to keep viewers asking whether the story is meant to be a tragedy or a farce, and, just like real life, it seems the answer is usually both.
Justin (Rupert Grint) is a prime example of how the show humanizes its characters despite they’re not being the most likable of people.
Indeed, this show is full of dark comedy arising out of the ridiculous lengths Toby and Justin go to keep Dorothy from remembering the truth. This overarching sense of humor makes you care about these characters even though they often act horribly, with Justin being a prime example of this. Played by Grint with an overdone American accent and endearing irritability, Dorothy’s brother is marked by his reckless disposition, self-serving calculus and his inflated ego. Yet the show makes a point to show us the vulnerabilities and insecurities that lie just underneath his disgruntled exterior, making you care for him as a human being even while you laugh at him as a caricature.
Yet enveloped within the disturbing and darkly comedic proceedings is an immediately human story about the overwhelming weight of grief and guilt. Near the end of the first season, we learn the sickening details leading up to Jericho’s death, allowing us to understand why Dorothy is stuck in a state of denial. Yet Sean and Justin are not blessed (or cursed) with the same artificial ignorance, forcing them to constantly walk on eggshells around Dorothy and consequently compartmentalize their own grief. Throughout the whole series up to this point, then, we’re forced to ask the question: is keeping the truth from Dorothy actually in her best interests?
Suffice it to say, you should check out “Servant.” The first episode of its next season just dropped on Friday, and my anticipation for season three couldn’t be higher. It’s most definitely not for everyone, but if you’re interested in a well-made series that different, disturbing and always engaging, pay a visit to the Turners. Just make sure you’re ready to be surprised.
Ben Hiett is an Advanced Biblical & Ministry Studies graduate student and Editor-in-Chief of Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterward and hanging with the boys.