It is an inescapable fact that the Christmas holidays, or whatever you choose to call them, come earlier every year. These days, as soon as American Thanksgiving is on the horizon, it’s time to get Christmassy. Soon, no doubt, the Queen’s Speech will be airing the Sunday of American Thanksgiving weekend, just to keep up with the new way of doing things.
If you’re fine with being force-fed the U.S. version of the holiday schedule you can, for instance, watch It’s A Wonderful Life (Saturday, NBC, TV 8 p.m.), which used to air on Christmas Eve. But you have choices, actually. You can go with a new doozy of a horror series or you can kick back with a new, harmless, albeit witless, holiday comedy.
Servant (streams AppleTV+) is the horror show. It’s mad, bad but only in a silly-creepy way and enjoyably cock-eyed. Written by Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon, Berlin Station) and from producer M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village), it is a lavishly made psychological horror story that seems to lack a sympathetic character.
We meet parents Sean and Dorothy Turner (Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose), when they are welcoming their live-in nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), the latter being there to care for the Turners’ infant son, Jericho. The first twist, given away early in the first episode, is that the real Jericho actually died and has been replaced by a lifelike doll. You see, Dorothy was traumatized by her baby’s death and some quack suggested she’d recover if there was a doll-like replacement.
Apparently, it worked, and the charade goes on. The spookily serene 18-year-old Leanne is happy to go along with it, treating the doll as a real child. This allows Dorothy to continue to work as a perky news reporter for a local TV channel. While she does this, Sean stays at home, working as a food consultant who creates opulent dishes in the kitchen and is paid enormous sums by restaurants. Mostly, then, he stays home, cooks, eats, drinks wine and looks glum about it.
On one level, Servant could be taken as a vicious satire of thirtysomething bourgeois living. These people dwell in gorgeous surroundings and enjoy nothing. The camera lingers close and long on their faces and has an almost erotic regard for the furniture and fixtures in the house. It’s all a spooky charade and you are meant to wonder what Leanne, the servant of the title, is up to. By the end of the first episode, she has certainly brought life to the house, and that’s not exclusive to her sensuous massaging of Dorothy in the bathtub.
Servant, at 10 episodes of roughly 30 minutes, is an addictive concoction, as notable for its savage take on the young, well-off parents as it is for its slow-burning, macabre storytelling. AppleTV+ has released the first three episodes, which is odd because it would be a bloody good binge watch with all 10.
Merry Happy Whatever (now streaming on Netflix) is your harmless fun. But it’s also a strange beast – a multicamera family sitcom, complete with laugh track, on Netflix. Created by Tucker Cawley, who wrote a lot of Everybody Loves Raymond, it has every possible cliché about white American families and a few laughs. Things start when Emmy Quinn (Bridgit Mendler) returns to her family home in Philadelphia for 10 days around Christmas and brings her boyfriend, Matt (Brent Morin), to meet the folks.
Essentially, it’s about Emily’s grumpy, widower dad, Don (Dennis Quaid), who has a lot of rules about how to celebrate the holidays. Since Matt’s from L.A., there’s a lot of mocking California, young people and anything that has changed since Richard Nixon was president. Really, Don Quinn is every grouchy-but-lovable conservative dad you’ve ever seen on U.S. TV. The series is aimed at an American Thanksgiving audience and, yes, you really need to be sleepy or stoned to get much pleasure from it. But pleasures there are, especially in Dennis Quaid’s demented inhabiting of the conventional dad character.
Also airing this weekend – To Kid or Not to Kid (Saturday, Sunday CBC NN 10 p.m. on The Passionate Eye) is thematically related to Servant. Filmmaker Maxine Trump offers a raw exploration of her personal decision not to have children and examines the attitudes that her decision brings out in others. It’s about cultural pressures on women to become mothers, about her husband’s reaction to her decision and about women in England who are in a legal battle for the right to choose sterilization.
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