As a disturbing psychological thriller, Shyamalan’s ‘Servant’ succeeds, but it might hit too close to home for some

Nell Tiger Free plays live-in nanny Leanne in “Servant.” Handout courtesy of Apple TV Plus

How psycho do you like your psychological thrillers? It’s a personal call, sort of like spicy food – will I squeal with satisfaction now but regret this decision later, while I’m trying to sleep peacefully?

Think of this review, then, as a caution on the menu: “Servant,” a new psychological thriller series that begins streaming Thursday on Apple TV Plus, is extra, extra disturbing. Bearing the imprimatur of M. Night Shyamalan, the film director known for his twist endings and uneven output, “Servant” is difficult to watch and fully process, and it’s nobody’s idea of a holiday treat. Yet it is also undeniably addictive. It’s next to impossible to quit in the middle of it, as the viewer becomes desperate to know how it will turn out.

But let me put it another way: How are you with dead babies?

I thought so. “Servant,” created and written by Tony Basgallop, does what all good psychological thrillers must do: It exploits one of our worst fears and, through the uses of metaphor and familiar horror tropes, drags us kicking and screaming through a story that may or may not be cathartic. I would say that anyone who has lost a baby – or worries about losing a baby, or suffers from postpartum depression, or simply has the new-parent heebie-jeebies about everything and anything baby – might want to take a pass on this one.

As for the rest of you sickos, come sit by me. I’m curious what you’ll think about “Servant.” After watching all 10 episodes (Apple is releasing the first three now, with an additional episode each week), I’m still not sure if it was excellent or awful. I’m also ambivalent about how much to tell here.

Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell portray Dorothy and Sean Turner, a couple who has recently experienced the loss of their infant son. Handout courtesy of Apple TV Plus

Lauren Ambrose, still remembered as Claire Fisher in “Six Feet Under” all those years ago, stars as Dorothy Turner, a Philadelphia TV news reporter who lives in a lovely townhouse with her husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), a highly regarded chef, consultant and foodie influencer. The Turners have recently experienced the loss of their infant son, Jericho – the details of which are kept vague for many episodes. In fact, one begins to wonder if there ever was an actual baby, because Dorothy deals with her grief by caring for a realistic baby doll.

So complete is Dorothy’s delusion that she pumps breast milk while she’s at work – where, it’s worth noting, she seems to draw the most insipid story assignments; her on-air segments come across as a commentary on the manufactured cheerfulness or heightened anxieties of local newscasts. So resolute is Sean’s desire to preserve his wife’s sanity that he plays along with it, cooing and cradling the doll in his wife’s presence.

Dorothy decides to hire a live-in nanny, and naturally she chooses the one who looks like an 18-year-old Wednesday Addams, a creepy young woman named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) who immediately adapts to the doll charade, caring so well for Jericho that . . .

Oh, dear. Should I tell you? It happens so early on and is so essential to the plot that I’m going to tell you: The baby comes alive.

Shyamalan, who executive-produced the series and directs two episodes, has a proven skill for luring us into one kind of story and then shifting, suddenly or subtly, to a whole other kind of story. This means “Servant” takes several pages from the horror catalogue, specifically all those movies about the demon infant and the fiercely protective, possibly supernatural nanny. At first, it’s a familiar kind of nail-biter.

But Basgallop’s story, aided by Shyamalan’s usual dank and dreary aesthetic (this family must have the lowest electric bill in town), takes a more complicated path. About midway through, one begins to regard “Servant” as a stylish indictment of modern selfishness, a social study of a species we once derisively referred to as “yuppies,” whom we now just view as privileged, opportunistic narcissists. Dorothy and Sean are more caught up in how people perceive them (and their baby) than the actual corrosiveness within.

In this regard, both Ambrose and Kebbell give outstanding performances as a couple grappling with what’s real and what’s not, both in their marriage and in the bassinet. Their characters feed off one another’s insecurities as the actors squeeze every uncomfortable drop from the material, no matter how upsetting it gets. (The next-to-last episode is a doozy, emotionally – but remember, I did warn you.)

And Rupert Grint, of “Harry Potter” fame, is surprisingly good as Dorothy’s younger brother, Julian, who shares Sean’s skepticism about Jericho’s miraculous return. Julian sets about investigating what’s really going on, turning up dirt on Leanne’s past and other useful information.

For that, we should be grateful, as “Servant” requires speed to keep from falling apart. It wisely keeps itself to 30 or so minutes per episode – any longer and it would get tediously shaggy. There may be places where the story begins to droop, but, if we are to judge a psychological thriller by its ability to worm its way into our psyche, then “Servant” certainly performs its duties.

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Servant (10 episodes) begins streaming Thursday on Apple TV Plus with the first three episodes. A new episode will stream weekly.



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