Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Valerie Ettenhofer serves up the return of M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ series with a review of Servant Season 2.
Forgive me, but to talk about Servant Season 2, we first need to talk about the dead baby. The first season of the M. Night Shyamalan-produced Apple TV+ series follows a well-to-do family as they cope — or rather, fail to cope — with the loss of their infant son, Jericho, by hiring live-in nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to take care of an uncanny, lifelike doll made in his image. Except that when Leanne arrives, bringing creepy totems and whispered prayers with her, the baby doll seemingly comes to life.
The real Jericho, we eventually learn, died when his harried mother, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), forgot him in her car on a hot day. The event is undeniably horrific — just writing it out makes me feel queasy — and is made all the worse by Dorothy’s subsequent psychotic break. She doesn’t remember the event at all, and her chef husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) and amoral brother Julian (Rupert Grint) work hard, for reasons of self-interest, to help maintain that illusion. Dorothy treats the mysterious new baby as Jericho, but in the Season 1 finale, he disappears during his christening party along with Leanne.
In its audacious, if middling, first season, Servant presented a trinity of infants — one dead, one a doll, and one that disappeared — and eerily treated each as the baby Jericho. Now, with the original baby’s unbearably bleak backstory finally revealed, all versions of Jericho are gone, leaving the psychological thriller to enter its second season at a disadvantage. The child held some spiritual resonance that made the series feel cosmically important and almost dreamlike, and without him, Servant crashes down to earth.
Leanne’s gone, too, meaning that the three remaining parties are left to meltdown on their own in the gilded prison of their luxe Philadelphia apartment. Occasional appearances by friendly commis chef Tobe (Tony Revolori) and Dorothy’s kinesthesiologist friend Natalie (Jerrika Hinton), characters who are more interesting and likable than the main trio, do little to help the show’s increasingly stifling, off-putting quality. Ambrose’s performance as a Type-A news correspondent, frantic mother, and all-around unhinged rich white woman is more enrapturing than ever, but despite her good work, the series as a whole is almost unwatchably unpleasant in its sophomore season.
Servant Season 2’s biggest problem is that it leaves its best secrets and mysteries to rot. The first season introduced a myriad of intriguing, open-ended narrative questions. It incorporated many potential supernatural elements, from the possible resurrection of Jericho to what appeared to be a curse upon Sean, who lost his sense of taste and found his body riddled with splinters. It teased a rather involved and nefarious post-death cover-up by Julian and Sean, with a possible assist by Natalie. It referenced a backstory for Leanne that involved religious extremism and possible abuse.
The seven episodes of Servant Season 2 that are available for review more-or-less address none of this, making the trio of self-involved central characters appear almost ridiculously incurious. In nearly every episode, the characters witness something disturbing or potentially life-changing, then go to bed afterward as if nothing happened. If the series was less narratively muddled, I’d say this choice was one of dark satire, showing the lengths to which the wealthy will go to preserve their personal status quo. As is, the group’s non-reactions to major events just seem ridiculous and vexing.
This might be a failure on the writers’ part. Series creator Tony Basgallop wrote every Season 1 episode and is credited on most of Season 2’s episodes, some of which also credit Nina Braddock and (in later episodes that mostly weren’t available to screen) Ishana Night Shyamalan. Fans of the series’ first season might hold out hope that a change in the writer will elevate the tail end of the season, but in the meantime, early episodes are neither scary nor particularly compelling.
The first season’s horror-inspired elements were hit-or-miss, but when the camera focused on Sean’s avant-garde cooking as a visual conduit for its dark themes, Servant achieved a sort of grotesque, stomach-churning beauty akin to something like Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. In Season 2, the guy barely cooks at all, and when he does, it doesn’t have the same visceral effect. If Servant wants to make itself worth viewers’ times, it needs to present something that feels like a punch to the gut the way the first season’s most effective moments did. Right now, it just feels like so much dead air.