The Turners throw a truly miserable dinner party on this week’s Servant, the Apple TV + show about demonic forces assailing the residents of a Philadelphia brownstone.
Leanne makes it her business to embarrass Sean’s guest, Dorothy spies something she shouldn’t, and sober Julian just drinks it all in.
The funniest and most daringly tense episode of the show – powered by Sideboard creator Tony Basgallop, showrunner M. Night Shyamalan and a host of incredible writers and directors – takes no prisoners. It also gives Nell Tiger Free some of the best comic work she’s done on the show to date.
Sideboard recap: ‘Fish’
In this week’s episode, titled “Fish,” Leanne (played by Nell Tiger Free) is having nightmares about having dispatched members of the cult who came for her during the street fair last week.
She can’t tell anyone, so she’s as reluctant as ever to leave the house, or leave the Turners alone for even a second, which they to notice and start to find obnoxiously cloying. They also notice that members of the homeless group that took up residence in the park across the street are starting to trespass on their property looking for Leanne, to talk to her, to give her things.
A cooking show
Sean (Toby Kebbell) finally tells Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) that he’s been asked to host the next season of the cooking reality show Gourmet Gauntlet.
He doesn’t want the job for a host of reasons.
- He was on the show when Dorothy lost baby Jericho (for the first time).
- He’s nervous about taking a high-profile job right when Dorothy has lost hers and is very publicly upset about it and trying to get it back.
- He doesn’t think the family needs any more stress right now.
Dorothy pushes him, thinking that because what she craves is front-facing attention, that he must, too. And she asks Leanne to push him, too.
A disastrous dinner party
Julian (Rupert Grint) comes over for a dinner party Sean is throwing for his Unitarian minister, Nancy (Carmen M. Herlihy), a development from which Dorothy is still reeling.
Neither Leanne nor Dorothy trust Sean’s newfound religion. Dorothy is just weirded out by the idea of her husband having a belief system different from hers period. Leanne doesn’t trust anyone anymore, and spends the whole night staring daggers at the intruder.
Dorothy’s also on high alert when she checks the security footage and sees Leanne’s brush with the cult members.
There’s a wrinkle in that story, though. Leanne didn’t handle them on her own. The homeless community helped out. They’re castaways, too, you see, having also fled the cult. They now look to her as some kind of messianic figure. She’s the only one who fought the cult and lived to tell the tale.
All the gorgeous rebirth
Kitty Green directs this week, confirming my suspicion that the driving force Shyamalan is just recruiting his directors from the previous year’s most interesting horror-adjacent movies.
Green made the disorienting and highly acclaimed film The Assistant, about the ins-and-outs of covering up for grotesque men in the film industry. Her compositions are unsurprisingly amazing, making excellent use of the Turner family’s wallpaper and floorboards to help create striking tableaux.
That serves as a great example of the genius of this show. It’s not like they changed the wallpaper: It just takes a director with a different eye to make it come alive. Every new artist who enters the Turner house sees something unique inside.
This week, the sound design is also noticeably stark and scary, which I don’t usually pick up on in Sideboard. (Not that it was bad, but this week it was especially good.)
An unnerving and funny episode
There’s also a lot of excellent use of shallow focus, intensely shoving faces into the foreground, center of the frame, giving little reprieve from the tangible awkwardness of the night. Though this is an unnerving installment of Sideboardit is also one of the funnier episodes this season.
Leanne’s rudeness ramps up the tension, making it worse at every turn. Nancy makes a harmless comment about the quick vegan meal Sean whips up for her.
“Mr. Turner’s cooking is not a joke, ”Leanne says curtly. I just about died.
There is a bit with Leanne smoking pot that’s also wonderful. It gives you a window into the everyday goings-on in the Turner house, the hours each “family” member gets to themself. I also like the off-putting coziness of the final 10 minutes of the episode after Nancy flees in disgust and terror from Leanne’s torment. Leanne and Julian getting high in the garden, Leanne sullenly eating Pringles alone in her bedroom when Sean comes to berate her for how he treated Nancy. These perfectly odd snapshots of life in this perfectly abnormal house. The stakes are low because Nancy is gone, they’re just hanging out. I love a good hangout.
Leanne is a tough character to play because blankness and stillness have to do so much of the work; she’s hardly human in the traditional sense when we meet her. It’s been very cool to see Free get to stretch out a little in the part and bring Leanne’s humanity to the surface regularly.
Now that everyone knows a little more about Leanne, the rest of Servant ‘s third season ought to be even more interesting. As Leanne grows into this new version of herself, the Turners must face up to the lies they’ve told each other and themselves.
Watch Sideboard on Apple TV +
New episodes of Sideboard arrive on Fridays.
Watch on: Apple TV +
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.
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