Few shows deliver as consistent a balance between solid storytelling entertainment and wild moments of what-the-fuckery as the Apple TV+ comic thriller Servant. After an initial run of episodes that found the show struggling to deliver an “all mystery and macabre, all the time” mindset, the series figured out a sturdier framework for its story in season two by leaning into the absurdity of it all, and locating consistent black humor in the characters and predicaments of this odd little family. Rarely did an episode end without providing at least one delightful moment of, “The hell just happened?!”
And while it’s still bringing the humor in season three, the latest round of episodes have landed somewhere in between the first and second seasons’ tones, splitting the difference between the original outlandish eeriness and subsequent laughs. It could be argued that this is the most “normal” season of Servant yet. But on a show where, when one character actually smiles, it’s such a rare occurrence that another says to them, “What’s wrong with your face?”, it’s safe to say that “normal” is grading on a steep curve.
The biggest change this season is just how restrained everything is being played in the early going. Here was a show that had started to feel practically Bates Motel-esque in its commitment to going over the top in as many different ways as possible, with no strange new narrative curlicue too weird, no emotional responses too outsized. But while the show still periodically pulls out the stops for a larger-than-life set piece, it’s hewing to a version of reality that’s far more, well, real. Everyone’s acting like a person with comprehensible, transparent thoughts and feelings.
For those requiring a quick refresher (which, understandable): The first season involved strange nanny-to-be Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) first arriving on her new employers’ doorstop to discover that Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell)’s new baby, Jericho, was dead from a tragic accident, but Dorothy was so in denial that she was treating a therapy doll as though it were her living, breathing child. Cue the big twist: The doll inexplicably gets replaced by an actual baby, and while Dorothy doesn’t even notice the shift, Sean, along with Dorothy’s wealthy wastrel brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), tried to get to the bottom of the seemingly impossible situation.
But after that inaugural year ended with Jericho once again being replaced by a doll, Dorothy and Sean spent all of the second season frantically searching for their infant child, believing him to have been spirited away by the same sinister cult that had formerly raised Leanne. There were mysterious implications of supernatural goings-on and the hint of a power to raise the dead, but in true Lost fashion, most of these bizarre elements were simply introduced, apparently never to be explained. Jericho was returned in the finale, but no real answers came with him.
But if no big reveals about what it all means appear to be forthcoming, the creative team has responded by crafting a much more tightly plotted story. In the first half of the season, it’s been three months since Jericho was returned and Leanne killed the woman who seemed to be the spiritual leader of her cult, hiding the body in the crawlspace next to her bedroom. Things have settled into almost prosaic normalcy, save for Leanne: She’s waiting for her former secret society turned tormentors to exact their punishment on the family. So while Sean and Julian try to coax her out of the apartment with trips to the park, doing everything to try and prove the nightmare is over and they’re all safe, she—and we, by extension—wait for the other shoe to drop.
And what a harrowing wait it is. Each installment features a creepy turn of events that may or may not have anything to do with Leanne’s justifiable paranoia about her sinister (and magical?) cult getting their revenge, sometimes punctuated by a terrific laugh line. (Dorothy, after an unwelcome surprise sees a bunch of party guests fleeing their apartment into the night: “Come back—we have tres leches!”) And when the inevitable finally does begin to happen, it’s executed with bleak, unsettling efficiency.
If the first and second seasons were very much from the family’s perspective, season three really puts Leanne’s point of view front and center, which explains the less humorous, more somber tone. Similarly, the family approaching normalcy means Ambrose gets to lean into Dorothy’s subtler rhythms for a change, substituting her previous over-the-top outbursts for more traditional (and sly) privileged-white-woman behavior. And Sean and Julian’s odd-couple bickering has mellowed in the face of Sean’s newfound happiness, which makes for some witty, unexpected shifts, like Julian trying to procure a DNA swab from Jericho without alerting the parents. (“You just shove this up the baby’s nose!”)
And, in a change that should startle anyone familiar with the claustrophobic insularity that defined that first two seasons, we actually go outside this year. The camera crosses the formerly impenetrable front and back doors, following everyone to work, the park, and—in an inspired set piece from episode five—a neighborhood street festival. M. Night Shyamalan sets up the new aesthetic and its attendant moodier tone in the first episode, before handing it off to daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan to (capably, it should be said) write and direct the second installment.
It’s a clever contrast: Fusing the brighter, more expansive color palette and location changes with more restrained and narrow plotting, as though balancing the scales of the show’s multifarious stylistic impulses. As the tension slowly ratchets up from episode to episode, the pacing improves alongside it, making for an enjoyably slow-burn affair. Servant may have dialed back the inspired wackiness of its second season, but by stripping away the campy bells and bizarro whistles, it’s found a nice mix of silly and sinister—a show that gets in, gooses the audience repeatedly with an acidic smile, and gets out.