The creepy Apple TV+ thriller from Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan is even darker, scarier, and funnier.
Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Apple TV +

This is going to sound ghoulish, but the second season of Servant — simply put, a show about a dead baby — is remarkably funny. The horror saga from Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan also remains a gripping mystery, blending tension-release giggles with even bleaker moments of terror.

When we left the Turner family one year ago, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) had just discovered that her baby boy Jericho was missing — presumably kidnapped by their quiet, God-fearing nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free). Complicating matters is the fact that months before, Jericho died in a heart-wrenching accident. In the wake of the tragedy, Dorothy retreated to a kind of psychological escape room, a place where her baby — in reality, a Reborn doll — is alive and thriving. Once Leanne arrived, though, things got… weird. Supernatural, even: Suddenly, a real baby started appearing in the crib. Who (or what) was it? Unclear. Suffice it to say that Dorothy remains firmly convinced her baby has been kidnapped, and she's hellbent on finding him. Her hapless husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), and her expedient brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), toggle between fretting over Dorothy's mental state and enabling her fantasy.

Servant exists in the gray area between cozy and claustrophobic: Almost all of the action takes place inside the Turners' shadowy, multi-level Philadelphia brownstone. The outside world arrives via satellite — through video calls and news reports beamed to the large flatscreen on the living room wall. Sean is a stay-at-home chef; the longer he stagnates inside, steeping in his own misery and confusion, the harder it is for him to distinguish between reality and delusion, rational behavior and sheer absurdity.

Relatable, right? This is where the aforementioned humor comes in. As part of her effort to track down Leanne and the zealots she associates with, Dorothy orders Sean to create a website for a fake pizza restaurant. Ridiculous, but that's not all: Julian suggests they name it… Cheesus Crust. In another darkly hilarious sequence, Dorothy — filling in for the evening news anchor — delivers the headlines in the soothing, sing-song-y tone of a mother reading a bedtime story, just in case Jericho is watching. ("The woman, who has not yet been identified, was discovered on the side of the expressway," she coos, gazing lovingly into the camera.)

It's a brilliantly funny moment, and desperately needed: The newscast follows a harrowing hypnosis scene in which a character recalls a ghastly experience with Leanne's religious cult. ("He takes out the eyes and he throws them away…") Servant thrives on this type of whiplash, stretching the dread to its limit and then playfully plinking our taut nerves like so many piano strings. It's a difficult tone to pull off, but one that the ensemble navigates capably. Ambrose brings an unflinching focus to Dorothy, a vain and demanding TV journalist who is holding off a nervous breakdown through sheer force of will. Boris McGiver makes a welcome return as Leanne's pious and eccentric Uncle George; only a character actor of McGiver's caliber could rave convincingly about "God's divine plan" in one moment and deliver a line like "Where is your Betamax player?" with perfect solemnity in another. Grint remains a scene-stealing standout as Julian, hissing profanity through clenched teeth ("a whole new level of skullf---ery!") and clinging fiercely to the idea that everything happening in the Turner household can be explained.

But grief can't be reasoned away, and this season Servant plumbs deeper into the characters' pain. Leanne is a figure of mystery — she may or may not be a spiritual prodigy with undefined supernatural powers — but she's also just a young woman scarred by her harsh and withholding mother. And Sean has been so consumed with Dorothy's emotional crisis that he hasn't truly mourned the loss of his son. When he finds the Reborn doll in the trash, Sean rescues the replacement Jericho and gives it a tender, heartbreaking bath.

Servant is a cliffhanger-driven thriller, and it's hampered by the decision to release it weekly on Apple TV+. (Season 2 premieres on Jan. 15, and episodes drop weekly through March 19.) But the sophomore season seems to be building steadily toward another chaotic and awful reckoning with Leanne, and this is one nightmare I'm in no rush to escape. Grade: A-

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