It’s pretty easy to understand why Apple didn’t include Servant in its inaugural batch of Apple TV+ television shows. An A-lister packed, ripped from the headlines series like The Morning Show—that’s the kind of TV to hinge the early days of a newborn streaming service on. An M. Night Shyamalan thriller about a creepy doll, on the other hand, is not exactly tentpole programming.
And yet, Servant is in many ways the more satisfying watch. The Morning Show is based thoroughly in our real world; it’s inspired by shows the entire country knows and news anchors who are household names. So it’s hard to understand why characters on the show all stubbornly refuse to behave like normal people. Instead of anything resembling actual human behavior, it’s full of flat attempts at Sorkin-style speechifying, improbable decision making and just general weirdness. The same goes for Servant—no one on either show behaves in ways that make any kind of sense. But because the whole story unfolds against a backdrop of unrelenting strangeness rather than any attempt at verisimilitude, it somehow all comes together.
And what Servant comes together to accomplish is an airing of cultural anxieties about parenting and motherhood. The show tells the story of Sean and Dorothy Turner, a wealthy Philadelphia couple who, after the sudden death of their infant son, decide to replace him with a hyperrealistic doll. Both Sean and Dorothy’s brother Julian, played by Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, are well aware that the doll is a fake, a fuzzy-headed plastic bauble whose stroller is parked deep in the uncanny valley. But Dorothy totally believes the doll is her little son Jericho, and treats it like a real-live infant, a delusion the men in her life think it’s wise to support, at least temporarily. To keep the lie going, when Dorothy returns to work as a local news reporter, they hire a nanny for the doll, a suitably creepy ultra-religious teenager named Leanne who spends her free time crafting Blair Witch-style crucifixes out of straw. Leanne is happy to treat the doll as a real baby, even when Dorothy’s not around, much to Sean’s dismay. Scarier yet, she and Dorothy are both completely unfazed when the doll disappears and is mysteriously replaced with a real, live infant.
It all sounds like something a writer would come up with after spending an hour or two in a Youtube hole of reborn doll unboxing videos (been there). But like all creepy movies and TV shows, Servant uses its unlikely story to plumb real-life terrors. In this case, it’s anxieties about what parenthood does to us, and particularly to women. To Sean, the warped version of motherhood Dorothy is playing out has rendered his wife someone he barely recognizes. Dorothy lives in a shadow world of maternal delusion, suffering from a painful case of mastitis that serves as a constant reminder of all her breasts’ un-sexy, un-fun functions, and quickly bonds with Leanne, who’s just as devoted to baby Jericho—both in doll form and in the flesh—as she is.
The show pretty much spells this out in its fourth episode. Dorothy wants to take Jericho to work with her, a prospect Sean’s eager to thwart, as he still doesn’t know where this random live baby came from in the first place. “You used to hate it when people did that to us, shoving their newborns under your nose, the pressure to say something nice,” he complains.
“Are you trying to upset me?” Dorothy replies.
“I’m just trying to stop you from being the person you despise,” says Sean.
Isn’t that the ultimate fear, that parenthood could turn us into people we despise? These are the anxieties of a culture that demands procreation, and yet has plenty of disdain for people who decide to do it, a society that finds women who don’t want children strange and suspect but comes up with names like “mombies” for those who do have them.
The characters are divided along predictable lines. The major female characters, Leanne and Dorothy, seem, well nuts. Very literally baby crazy, and Leanne’s maybe slightly evil to boot. Sean and Julian may be assholes, but they’re pretty grounded in reality. For this show, parenthood is basically synonymous with madness, and it’s a madness to which men are largely immune. The show does a terrific job at playing with the creepy tensions in the Turner household, but the series would have been much improved by daring to suggest that plenty of women are immune to baby fever, and that men succumb to it, too.
The show is called Servant, which seemingly refers to Leanne, the only member of the Turner’s household staff. But it also seems to be a reference to the fear of the power children have over us, the power to make us servants of their needs and whims—and in doing so, completely alter the identities we had before. Dolls are scary enough, but that’s pretty terrifying, too.