It was billed as a “Night with M. Night Shyamalan,” and indeed, it was a longer-than-usual panel (2 hours!) where MTV’s Josh Horowitz got to talk to the filmmaker about a few other things before shifting directly into Servant, Shyamalan’s new Apple TV+ series where very little was known about it beyond a couple short teasers.
Servant is a 30-minute thriller series created by Tony Basgallop, a writer on Berlin Station who is also the series executive producer and the sole writer. Servant revolves around Sean and Dorothy Turner, a couple living in a townhouse in Philadelphia, played by Toby Kebbell (A Monster Calls) and Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), with an intriguing premise that you may want to learn about for yourself so SPOILERS BEWARE, since Apple and Shyamalan have gone to great lengths to keep it secret. This is nothing new, as Shyamalan has always been notoriously reticent to reveal too much info about his projects beyond what’s revealed via marketing.
After some general talk about his career up until that point, Night showed the first full trailer for the series, which he said won’t be online for a few weeks. The trailer begins with a new nanny named Luann (Nell Tiger Free) showing up at the Turners’ door, and Sean comments that he was expecting someone “older and less weird.” Also in the picture is Rupert Grint’s Julian, Dorothy’s brother, who asks Kebbell, “She is cool with everything?” to which his brother-in-law responds, “She knows the situation.” This is before we even know the premise or the nature of their baby, which we learn as Sean seemingly picks up the baby precariously by its legs, and we learn that… it’s actually a doll. Dorothy is treating the doll like a real baby, so Luann follows suit, neither of them really letting on that it’s not a real baby.
We learn via the trailer that the Turners had recently lost their baby Jericho at 13 weeks old, something that Dorothy took so hard that they replaced the baby with this lifelike doll through a form of “fringe therapy.” Although Luann has been hired basically to care for a doll, there seems to be some question about the fact that she is also very strange and maybe taking her role too seriously. There also might be more to Jericho’s death than what anyone is saying. Towards the end of the trailer someone asks one of the Turners, “Do you know who you welcomed into your home?” so there’s probably more to this nanny, too. (Shyamalan actually thinks that Luann might be a future comic-con cosplay fave, so she must really get into some crazy things as the series goes along.)
The trailer made the show look very creepy, very much in the vein of The Visit, giving us a good look at the townhouse set that Shyamalan built in a warehouse in Philly. The production design on that house made it look pretty amazing, reminding me a bit of some of the cooler Korean thrillers like A Tale of Two Sisters and the recent Parasite. Much of the trailer involved quick cuts and close-up shots, and there was a noticeable amount of “food porn” involved – because apparently Sean is a chef.
There are probably other actors in the series, but Night said that the series will be suitably contained within the townhouse and the core group. He also mentioned earlier in the panel that at least in his mind, the series would be 60 half-hour episodes stretched out over six years (so presumably six seasons?). While the premise seems interesting, I’m not 100% sure how they’ll stretch it out over what will amount to 30 hours of television, but obviously, Basgallop and Shyamalan have a plan.
After showing the trailer, Basgallop and some of the cast – Ambrose, Kebbell and Grint – were brought out to talk about the series, which will debut on Apple TV+ on Thanksgiving day, November 28. The panel was suitably set-up like a Thanksgiving table for Horowitz, Shyamalan and the cast to sit at while talking about the new series.
Basgallop said that the idea came out of him first having kids. “In a way, anyone who has kids understands the fear and the notion that anything can go wrong at any time. I’m a clumsy guy, so when I had kids, it was really treacherous for my family,” he joked. “You get through it, but it changes your life. The people that come into your life… you make new friends, you find new hobbies. I think whenever you do a drama, change is always a good thing, because you put your characters in an uncomfortable position. From there, everything just blossomed, and new ideas came in, new experiences came in. When Night and I got together, we started discussing the season as a whole and where we’re going to take it. I think the trailer represents very well what the show is.”
“There were many scripts. It really felt like making a film,” Ambrose said about how the project was presented to her by Shyamalan. “It’s a fascinating, tragic character,” she said about playing Dorothy, especially after playing Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. “It was very interesting to me. To go from that to working in a genre that I’ve never worked in with a master of the genre, I knew it would be a lot of learning and a fascinating exploration of grief and what people do with grief. This character takes her grief and expresses it in the most bananas way.”
Although the trailer made the series look quite eerie, Shyamalan thought that there was still a certain amount of humor in the series. “This is actual fringe therapy,” Shyamalan said about couples using dolls to get over their grief after a baby’s death. “It gets so extreme that the mother decides to hire a nanny to take care of the doll. That premise is so tragic and weird and scary, but it’s also oddly, inappropriately funny. Tony is super-funny. I know he doesn’t look it, but all of them are hilarious. That’s the tone that I’ve been really interested in with The Visit and Split. You’re scared and laughing at the same time.”
The Beat will have more with the Servant cast and Tony Basgallop sometime in the next few days.