5. MONDAY REVIEWS: "SERVANT" AND "TRUTH BE TOLD" ON APPLE TV+
Apple's new mystery-thriller series "Servant" has been sold largely through its association with filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan, who's on board as a producer and directed the pilot. This is not terribly surprising, as the project has a lot of similarities to Shyamalan's other work: it's moody and atmospheric, it's set in Philadelphia, it's an examination of faith and the power of belief, it's based around a high-concept premise, and it builds to unexpected, even shocking, twists. But though I don't exactly know where "Servant" is going after just four episodes, it appears to be a very different animal from the filmmaker's usual fare.
M. Night Shyamalan movies, when they work, succeed because they're so grounded. We accept Cole's strange, ghostly visions because the world around him in "The Sixth Sense" feels so lived-in and real. (For example, his nuanced relationship with his mother.) "Unbreakable" isn't just a story about a man who discovers he's a superhero; it's about a man reconnecting with his true self, and we understand this transformation because we spend so much time with him and his family. These are observant and humane dramas with supernatural elements. "Servant," on the other hand, feels like it's taking place in some kind of dream-world alternate reality, where nothing quite links up, and it's impossible to get a read on anyone.
At the start, we're introduced to a wealthy and successful couple, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner; he writes recipes and consults fine dining restaurants, she's a TV news correspondent. Their first and only child died as an infant, causing Dorothy to descend into a fugue state; the only way to bring her back was to present her with a lifelike doll, which she pretends is her dead son, Jericho. In the first episode, as a way of keeping up the charade and allowing Dorothy to process her grief in her own time, the couple hires Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), a live-in nanny to care for the "child." Only, to Sean's dismay, Leanne's a bit TOO willing to play along and refuses to break the reality that Jericho is real.
More and more mysterious circumstances continue to develop, and the show really does become very intriguing, like a jigsaw puzzle where you only get a certain number of pieces to put together at a time. It works largely because of a lot of narrative sleight-of-hand. Though "Servant" presents itself as a story about Dorothy AND Sean, in reality, we only get access to Sean's perspective, so we only ever have his working knowledge and understanding of the situation. Like him, we're constantly unsure of what Dorothy really knows about her reality -- does she remember losing her baby at all? How does she explain Sean's strange attitude at times in her own mind?
With its claustrophobic setting (almost the entire series plays out in Sean and Dorothy's home) and tight, suffocating cinematography (Shyamalan films a LOT of the pilot in extreme close-ups on the actors' faces), "Servant" ratches up the tension quickly, but isn't particularly forthcoming with information or story development. (As I said, at times, it doesn't even seem to be taking place in our own world. There are many occasions when I suspect a real person in Sean's situation would just call the police.) I'm not sure if it'll be able to keep up this pace and format for multiple seasons, but it's certainly held my attention so far. (Creator Tony Basgallop has said he's envisioning a 60-episode show that runs for 6 seasons. So... we'll see.)
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
Episodes: 4 so far; 10 in Season 1
Running time: 30-35 minutes each
Genre: Psychological thriller
TRUTH BE TOLD
"Truth Be Told" isn't based on a podcast. It's based on a novel, "Are You Sleeping?," that first-time author Kathleen Barber was inspired to write after... wait for it... listening to the "Serial" podcast. So once again, we've got a scripted crime drama series that organizes itself around a podcaster investigating an old murder. The show mainly works, buoyed by solid performances by an ensemble packed with good character actors, but it struggles at times to overcome rote familiarity and reliance on a lot of genre tropes.
Octavia Spencer stars as Poppy Parnell, a dogged investigative reporter who once wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times, and now hosts a top-ranked iTunes true-crime podcast. Years earlier, Poppy made her reputation based on a series of articles covering the arrest and trial of a young man named Warren Cave (played by Aaron Paul as an adult), who was accused and ultimately convicted of killing his neighbor. Now, a new piece of evidence causes Poppy to question Cave's guilt, and reopen the case on her show, despite the suggestion of everyone else -- from the chief of police to her own family members -- that she leave well enough alone.
All the expected cold case beats are here in some form or another. Dark, shocking revelations about a suburban family who seemed wholesome and perfect from the outside; shadowy late-night threats to give up the investigation and drop the case; interviews with hostile subjects who inadvertently reveal more than they intended; pleas from concerned friends to give up all the late nights and spend more time with loved ones; second glances at old evidence that reveal new insights; intrusions of her work on Poppy's increasingly fragile home life; and so on. There aren't really a lot of SURPRISES in "Truth Be Told" for anyone familiar with detective shows.
But the execution is there. It's fun to see Spencer and Paul play off one another in their few scenes together (so far), and we're treated to a lot of fun turns from some other great performers, including Ron Cephas Jones as Poppy's reformed ex-con father; Elizabeth Perkins as Cave's mother, maybe the only one who's always believed in his innocence; Mekhi Phifer as an old flame who comes to Poppy's aid; Tracie Thoms as Poppy's jaded older sister; and Lizzy Caplan in a surprisingly subdued dual role. (Considering the formulaic nature of the material, I might have dialed up the campiness, and let the actors go a bit broader, but I understand why Apple may have favored the more restrained, traditional version.)
I liked "Truth Be Told," which feels very much like what a major TV network would have done with the same source material. But I'm not sure that's why Apple needs to aim for to breakthrough in the Peak TV landscape. They need some AMC, FX or HBO-level surprises, and I'm not sure I'm seeing it yet. (At least "Servant" is bold.)
Title: "Truth Be Told"
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
Episodes: 3 so far; 10 in Season 1
Running time: 40-45 minutes each
Genre: Mystery drama