One of the most high-profile filmmakers associated with the streaming service Apple TV+ since its launch last November has been M. Night Shyamalan. Promotional images for Servant, which released its tense season finale on Friday, prominently featured the words, “From M. Night Shyamalan” over the title. Shyamalan directed the show’s pilot and serves as one of its executive producers, much like he did with Fox’s Wayward Pines.
The plot of Servant revolves around a suspicious nanny who enters the life of a Philadelphia couple. Here, as with Wayward Pines, Shyamalan has taken a step back from writing duties. Showrunner Tony Basgallop wrote all ten episodes of Servant’s first season. Yet there are aspects of the show that feel very much of a piece with Shyamalan’s overall body of work as a writer-director. It’s another atmospheric dip into psychological horror where the choice of setting, the familiar preoccupation with belief and delusion, a newer tendency toward exploitation tactics, and less salubrious aspects like accusations of plagiarism (Servant is now the subject of a lawsuit) all draw a line to previous moments in his career.
Spoilers for Servant follow.
In its first season, Servant also employed other filmmakers turned TV directors like Nimrod Antal (Vacancy, Predators) and John Dahl (Rounders, Joy Ride). So it’s not as though Shyamalan is the only director responsible for bringing this show to life. However, Servant does feel like an appropriate offshoot of the Shyamalan brand. It’s a twisty thriller and the setting is Pennsylvania, where he grew up and where he has shot and set most of his films. Moreover, that Pennsylvania setting is extremely contained. The show rarely ventures outside a single townhouse, and even when it does, it’s usually just a short trip to the street outside where cars sit parallel-parked.
This is in line with the isolated farms, villages, apartment complexes, elevators, small towns, basements, and mental institutes that have served as the primary location in other Shyamalan projects. (See: Signs, The Village, Lady in the Water, Devil, Wayward Pines, The Visit, Split, and Glass.) Basically, Shyamalan never met a contained setting he didn’t like. This is something I wrote about last year when I delved into the twists, the triumphs, and the turkeys of his career.
Even After Earth, a movie set on a planet devoid of human life, could be considered a mass-scale rendering of a contained setting. It’s a place where the real world doesn’t intrude on Shyamalogic. As a storyteller, Shyamalan does seem to prefer hermetic scenarios where he can exercise the utmost control, using his own loopy logic to create new natural laws where the normal rules of human behavior don’t necessarily apply.
In Servant, this manifests itself in the lack of communication between characters. Toby Kebbel and Lauren Ambrose play Sean and Dorothy Turner and Nell Tiger Free plays their new live-in nanny, Leanne Grayson. Sean is a stay-at-home consulting chef and Dorothy is a local TV news correspondent, though we’re never out in the field with her. We only see her doing reports on television in the Turners’ townhouse.
Rupert Grint — a long way from his role as Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter movies — plays Dorothy’s pot-smoking, wine-guzzling brother, Julian. He and the private investigator he hires both appear in chat windows at times, like when they take a trip to Wisconsin to track down the fire-ravaged home where Leanne grew up. Sean also performs a brief, cheeky gig on TV as a judge on a reality show called Gourmet Gauntlet, where contestants are dismissed with the catchphrase, “Chef, hang up your knife.” But these glimpses of the outside world only come through video screens. The show’s main action is confined to the radius of the house.
Shyamalan is famous for his twist endings, but in Servant, one of the biggest twists comes in the first episode when we learn that the Turners’ baby is, in fact, a reborn doll. Their real son, Jericho, actually died and Dorothy had a psychotic break that has kept her in a state of denial, treating the doll like a real baby. When Leanne moves in, she mysteriously keeps up the charade, acting as though the doll is real. The next big twist comes at the end of the first episode when Sean suddenly finds a real baby in the crib where the reborn doll was.
Every time Sean or Julian tries to confront Leanne about the baby, she avoids their questions. Yet they let her go right on living in the house even after Julian’s Wisconsin expedition turns up evidence that the real Leanne Grayson might be dead. This girl, this stranger using Leanne’s name, seemingly stole her identity before moving in—and bringing an unexplained baby with her.
This is what I meant by the lack of communication between characters. If real-world logic, as opposed to Shyamalogic, is allowed to intrude on this story, then it becomes a thing where you wonder why characters are so quick to let unanswered questions go. They go about their business, accepting the new status quo of a stranger living in the house with an unexplained baby, but it’s hard to see anyone reacting that way if this were a real-world situation. More likely, there would be an immediate confrontation where people were forced to explain themselves.
That the characters don’t press the matter with Leanne can at least be partially attributed to Dorothy’s fragile mental state, which has put them in a delicate situation where they’re having to maintain the lie to protect her psyche. Sean and Julian assume that Leanne and her strange uncle want to blackmail them, but again, this is something that could be cleared up with communication. To make matters worse, the hay cross that Leanne put over the baby’s crib seems to have worked some sort of splintery witchcraft on Sean’s body. He also loses his sense of taste, which is a pretty important thing for a chef to have; but instead of rushing out to the doctor, he just seems to accept this as the new norm.
Servant and its characters prefer to play things so close to the vest and that’s part of the problem: there’s no there there, or at least not enough of one that the show is willing to reveal. Even though the episodes are only about half an hour long, the story is stretched out over ten weeks, to the point where the first season seems maddeningly opaque at times. Servant obfuscates rather than elucidates its mysteries; reveals come slow and compared to the ones in Shyamalan’s films, they’re not staged with as much pomp, so they don’t land with as much impact, good or bad.
Edgar Allen Poe once wrote an essay entitled, “The Importance of the Single Effect in the Prose Tale,” where he argued, essentially, that short stories were a more effective art form than novels because they could deliver an “exaltation of the soul” in one sitting. Chalk it up to the diluted emotional power of long-form storytelling, but with Servant, there’s not that sense of glowing epiphany that you might get from the end of a movie like The Sixth Sense or Split. It’s more a matter-of-fact slotting of pieces into a puzzle that might not be finished for six years.
Shyamalan has said that he hopes the show lasts six seasons and sixty episodes, so if this season left you with more questions than answers, that may not change until 2025. In an interview with Variety, Basgallop explained his writing approach like this:
There is an easy solution to all of these problems, and that’s for this couple to sit down and acknowledge the tragedy that came into their life. But that’s not what these people do. The way I write is to find ways for these characters not to confront the issue. They’re constantly talking around it.
Denial is certainly a part of human nature, and it might be easier to accept Leanne’s presence in the Turners’ home were she positioned as an external metaphor for problems left unattended, like the uninvited house guests in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother. As it is, while Servant excels at maintaining a consistent, creepy tone, it feels like it gets caught in a loop of, “I have a secret, I have a secret, I’m not going to tell.”
In the penultimate episode, which Shyamalan also directed, we do finally learn that Jericho died because of neglect. While Sean was out of town, Dorothy got frazzled one day and left her son to bake out in the hot car. We also learn that Leanne’s aunt and uncle are the leaders of a huggy cult, that they faked her death, and that she and the cult crossed paths with Dorothy years before. It’s no coincidence that she came to work for Dorothy; she actually sought employment with her because she’s looked up to her ever since she was a little girl and Dorothy interviewed her for a beauty pageant.
Despite this, we still don’t know whose baby it was that Leanne brought into the Turners’ house or if she, in fact, resurrected the real Jericho somehow, the way she was apparently able to do with the dead dog and cricket. The show is designed to keep viewers guessing back and forth and it remains to be seen whether there will ever be a moment when it comes down firmly on one side or the other, the way Unbreakable did when it had David Dunn embrace his true nature as a superhero, or the way Signs did when it restored the lost faith of its Episcopalian priest protagonist. For now, Leanne’s religious background and Dorothy’s refusal to accept the crib death of her baby continue the twin tropes of belief and delusion in Shyamalan’s filmography, enough to make it feel like an extension of that filmography without being wholly subsumed by it.
In recent years, Shyamalan has leaned more into B-movie and exploitation strategies, playing around with humor and ickier subject matter (occasionally going for the gross-out over horror, as Stephen King would put it). When a TV news correspondent in Servant looks at the camera and says, “I asked some local humans what this means to them,” it feels like the same kind of farcical flourish you would see in a flick like The Happening. Likewise, the way Servant uses food to squirm-inducing effect — having Sean cook and serve his dead son’s placenta as a party dessert, for instance — doesn’t feel that far removed from moments like the one in The Visit where Shyamalan showed us an adult diaper smooshed into a kid’s face.
There’s a scene in Servant where Leanne’s uncle wipes all the sauce off his chicken and then proceeds to wring it out uncomfortably over his dinner plate. Viewers may have a similar experience with the show itself when they become aware of the lawsuit filed against Shyamalan, Basgallop, and company by a filmmaker who alleges that they stole her movie: closely patterning the plot of Servant after the 2013 film The Truth About Emanuel.
It would be different if this were an isolated incident, but unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Shyamalan has been accused of plagiarism. As a fan of his early films and Split, I’ll confess that it took some of the wind out of my sails when I learned that the twist in The Village — whereby the 19th-century settlement was revealed to exist in the modern day — had already been used in a YA novel by an author who felt Shyamalan had plagiarized her. It makes you wonder about the viability of a show like this.
Can Servant redeem itself and get out of the shadow of this lawsuit or is it destined for future cancellation, like Wayward Pines? The white-knuckle tension of its season finale was preceded by a batch of episodes that sometimes felt like they were spinning their wheels, getting by on atmosphere alone. For fans of genre material, this is probably the single most interesting show to come out of the early slate of Apple TV+ originals; but Shyamalan wasn’t involved in Wayward Pines in a directorial capacity after its first season and I wouldn’t be surprised if his role grew more limited as the series progressed.
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