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How Servant captures the heightened horror of local news
The majority of Servant's first season is spent in a beautiful Philadelphia townhouse at the heart of what executive producer M. Night Shyamalan calls an "urban nightmare." The opulent but often claustrophobic location is a fortress for the Turner family that is penetrated by several outside threats. A nanny with strong religious-based feelings and a snarling dog are both features of The Omen, but this story is not as clear-cut as the 1970s horror classic.
When the characters leave the street on which they reside, the viewer only sees these moments through screens, whether FaceTime on Apple devices — Servant does air on Apple TV+, after all — or on television showing a world that exists beyond these four walls. Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) works as a reporter on Channel 8 News, delivering a rotation of feel-good puff pieces and terrifying glimpses into the horrors that lurk in the city. This role acts as a lightning rod for the tragedy that has enveloped this home, and also reads as a commentary on the role of local media in the current landscape.
Discerning what is fact and fiction has never been harder than in the age of Facebook, which can spread alarming stories far and wide before they are debunked — and by then it's often too late. In 2016, creepy clown sightings captured the "volatile mix of fear and contagion" that first made local news, followed by national (and then international). On the "Killer Clowns" episode of the podcast, You're Wrong About, guest Chelsey Weber-Smith (host of American Hysteria) notes the local news beginnings after a concerned parent called in a tip. It even went as far as the White House when a reporter asked for a comment from then-President Obama about his thoughts on this alleged problem. In Servant, some of the news stories Dorothy works on has a whiff of fear-mongering, which swing between red herrings to the overall plot, and a key to unlocking the deeper danger at play. This factor highlights the role local news has, including how it is a trusted source that can be manipulated.
Spoilers ahead for Servant Season 1
The motive behind hiring Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) as a nanny for baby Jericho is so Dorothy can return to work. This is not a typical childcare role, instead, the 18-year-old is tasked with looking after a Reborn doll that lies in the place of the real Jericho who tragically died. Dorothy's husband Sean (Toby Kebbell), along with her brother Julian (Rupert Grint) have been using this doll as therapy for the grief-stricken mother, which Leanne gamely plays along with. Matters take a turn for the perplexing when a real baby appears in the place of the lifelike doll.
Each episode hovers around the 30-minute mark, unspooling the mystery in concise installments that further enhances the unsettling atmosphere and cranks up the tension. The local news plays an important role, intensifying the dread that lingers in every shadow of the Turner home. The push/pull between what is real and imagined is heightened by the flashes of disturbing news stories that don't always fit neatly into the narrative. Rather, they have a disquieting effect as the audience tries to figure out whether Dorothy showcasing a fatberg getting destroyed beneath the city is going to factor in the larger puzzle.
In some cases, the content of these reports is a metaphor for the antics in the Turner household, whereas others are red herrings, and short snappy chyrons are a warning for what is to come. Clues to Leanne's past hide in plain sight in the DVD recordings of Dorothy's work. The archive takes pride of place in the front room, but it isn't until the Season 1 finale that Dorothy turns to this collection to solve one of the biggest conundrums; where Leanne comes from and the identity of her foreboding aunt and uncle.
"How safe is your family?" a reporter asks during a kidnapping news item in Episode 8 while Julian undertakes babysitting duties. During this evening alone in the house, the living and breathing baby is temporarily switched out for the Reborn doll. This "prank" is so Leanne can use the replacement as leverage to find out the truth about what happened to the Turner newborn. Julian turns off the report before too much detail can be discerned, which is a common occurrence in Servant. On the one hand, this reflects the way viewers turn the news on (or off) mid-story, only gleaning certain particulars. Structurally, it is another method to disorientate because limited information makes it harder to evaluate its importance.
Other notable news moments reflecting the overall themes include a report on the "war on drugs," which Dorothy gives on her first day back. One detail that stands out from the drug bust is that the arrested couple's children are taken into custody, and this points to the precarious situation in the Turner home. Where has this baby come from? Have the Turners avoided legal trouble because of their wealth and privilege?
Crime and fatberg disposal are far from Dorothy's only area of expertise, she is also on hand to tackle lifestyle and fitness. Body image concerns are common after having a baby, and Dorothy's on-camera role only heightens her insecurities. She doesn't feel confident being naked in front of her husband in the privacy of their bathroom, and when Leanne wants to hurt her she knows to needle this particular area of self-loathing. Furthermore, Dorothy's younger colleague Isabelle is seen as a threat to her position, which is why it hurts when Isabelle does the municipal pool puff piece in a bathing suit. Earlier, Dorothy had done a trampoline workout report, in which the volume of diet fads she has cycled through is seen as a regular talking point. There are different levels of insidious content we digest every night, whether fearmongering drug reports or tapping into low self-esteem. Exercise class suggestions appear to encourage a healthy lifestyle, but it can also be damaging.
"Hygiene a Priority" reads one chyron relating to a potential law that seemingly would stop makeovers in malls and department stores. Again, the broadcast is clipped, but this taps into anxiety and outrage that helps earn viewers — also this story feels very on theme for 2020. Local news is still a valuable and trusted resource (the latter has been paramount during the Covid-19 pandemic), which is why it is important for level headed reporting with verified sources. It is a delicate balance that is hard to maintain, particularly when viewership figures are a concern, and social media is on hand to feed the beast. Fear breeds ratings and so do outlandish stories.
Perhaps the most overt example is the "Feral and Ferocious" dog attack vivid description that points to several classic horror tropes in Episode 7. Two joggers have been injured during a savage attack by an animal that is typically a domesticated pet. But here in the middle of the city, there is now an apparent epidemic of wild animals plaguing the community. Presenting itself as an urban versus rural dichotomy, the dog is an allegory for Leanne's presence in the Turner home. It also sounds like a farfetched story but plausible enough to be concerned.
During a dinner party at the Turner residence in "Haggis," the only other person who knows the truth about Jericho goes to check on the new baby to find a snarling dog in his room. As a last resort, Julian takes one of the empty bottles of wine and uses it as a weapon against the canine. The dog is killed and animal welfare will be called to sort out the rest. How it got in is worrying, but this house keeps experiencing unwelcome visitors or people arriving unannounced. It is a terrifying moment, in which something that seems outlandish comes true. What follows is an added twist as when Julian and Natalie (Jerrika Hinton) leave, the dog is not only no longer dead but it is capable of running out of the house. Suddenly Leanne's abilities are called into question and it all got a little Biblical up in here.
Earlier, Leanne's connection to Dorothy is revealed to go back to when Leanne was a little girl and appeared on TV as part of a pageant piece. Her attachment to Dorothy began at this moment and Leanne could watch the reporter every night in the comfort of her own home. In this respect, the local news is the source of this whole journey. The chyron for this reads "Children are the Future" and it turns out that Leanne was Dorothy's. But this is not the only news crossover with Leanne's family, and rather than a beauty pageant, it is a Waco-like scene that provides a big part of the puzzle. Dorothy recognizes Aunt May (Alison Elliott), which we initially assume is from the pageant. Instead, May is the leader of the Church of the Lesser Saints that was the focus of the violent standoff. Local news is the source of this discovery, but Dorothy uncovers this secret after Leanne has left with the real baby.
Disinformation is a serious concern and Servant utilizes the difficulty in determining what is true to add to the paranoia-laced plot. Part of the twisty tapestry is the news stories that play out in the background, emphasizing how Dorothy's work penetrates the home environment. The worst-case scenarios that appear on local news are more terrifying because of the proximity, which is magnified in Servant because of her job.
Ending with Jericho's "abduction" complicates matters further and it is unclear how public the Turners will want to go with their story. There is a chance the local news will play a major role in turning attention onto the dangerous cult and the "kidnapping." However, this also leaves Dorothy and Sean open to public scrutiny, not to mention the charade Sean has been maintaining. The recently released second season teaser indicates the family is divided about what to do next, but their "urban nightmare" would make a great lead story on Channel 8 news.