M. Night Shyamalan Conjures a Dark Vision of Domestic Scares With ‘Servant’

Servant” attempts to fill the slot of gothic suspense and class-conscious drama in the roster of Apple TV Plus. The newly launched streaming service has tried to reach a wide range of demographics and here is a show to satisfy those seeking screeching violins, strange low-lit dinners and small hints that the story might just get very crazy. This is the first title for the service produced by director M. Night Shyamalan, who leaves a definitive visual stamp on the look and tone. It could almost be seen as a return to the kind of low key storytelling that made the filmmaker a household name.

Our latest examples of middle class dysfunction are Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose). He’s a chef and consultant for major eateries while she’s a local TV news personality. On a stormy evening to the door arrives Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), the new nanny or maid if you will. Her primary job is to take care of the Turners’ infant son Jericho. But there’s a catch, Jericho isn’t real. He’s a realistic doll used as a mechanism to help Dorothy ease out of the heartbreaking shock of losing the actual baby not too long ago. There’s obvious tension in the marriage and soon odd things begin to happen, such as Sean finding splinters randomly appearing in various parts of his body or a strange talisman in Jericho’s room. But that’s nothing compared to realizing one morning that Jericho the doll has suddenly turned into a resurrected, living baby. While Dorothy seems to not notice the sudden impossible shift in reality, Sean becomes distraught and along with brother-in-law Julian (Rupert Grint) decides to investigate Leanne and find out what forces are hiding behind her shy exterior.

What a challenging terrain it is to pull off a show like “Servant,” in part because a premise like this could either be very silly or done with just enough atmosphere to pull it off. The first three episodes, which will drop all at once before switching to weekly single chapter installments, veer towards the latter. Shyamalan’s main collaborator is showrunner Tony Basgallop, who has written for different variations of suspense from “24: Live Another Day” to “Hotel Babylon.” They successfully combine Shyamalan’s sense of mystery with a thriller pace that wisely only lasts 30 minutes per episode. While some of Apple TV+’s other content has featured large scale production values, this one works by feeling confined and eerie. The Turners’ fancy apartment is almost cavernous, with eternally dark hallways and a spotless kitchen that still looks gray in daytime. Shyamalan directs two episodes out of a season of ten, including the pilot and you can almost feel him getting back into a place of pure storytelling after the bombast of this year’s earlier, messy superhero opus “Glass.” 

Shyamalan was always adept at something necessary for a good horror or thriller director, the ability to make the improbable seem real. The first moments of the pilot are devoted to building up the unease in the apartment. Sean and Dorothy gripe and snipe at each other, with Sean in particular being a master of passive aggressiveness. Like with “Signs” or “Unbreakable,” Shyamalan establishes a domestic setting sharply, before bringing in the more unnatural elements. The growing toxic vibe between the couple gets worse with the arrival of a third party, Leanne, and is then pushed to the breaking point by Jericho coming back to life. Veteran TV directors like Daniel Sackheim then follow Shyamalan’s lead and continue the show’s intriguing, strange cryptic narrative. It’s more about the textures than immediate explanations. Leanne passes out when Sean strips an eel for dinner, the strange talisman-like object in Jericho’s room hints at occult forces, but exactly what will be revealed later in the season. Julian interrogates the strange girl by popping open a ‘94 bottle of wine, but she somehow hypnotizes him with her mere gaze. Leanne is not exactly a femme fatale, more like an introvert with a hint of seductiveness. We get intriguing shots of her sitting alone in a room, watching Dorothy on the news. But never does the show expose immediately what’s really going on. The music by Trevor Gureckis takes on a screeching ambiance, making the mundane feel threatening.

Because Shyamalan is at the helm we could expect some kind of major twist at the end. However “Servant” works because it never gets too hokey. Instead it proceeds like a slow burner “Twilight Zone” tale. Julian goes in search of Leanne’s past in her hometown and discovers she might not even be who she claims to be. Or is she?  Expect this narrative to get even crazier, but it’s in how it’s delivered that makes it engaging. We’re not expected to believe any of it, but Shyamalan and his team make the premise vibrate with a disturbing sense that we could. 

Servant” season one premieres Nov. 28 with new episodes streaming every Thursday on Apple TV+.