Servant review: M Night Shyamalan’s Apple series is nightmare fuel; scary and sublime
Servant review: Apple TV Plus’ new original series finds director M Night Shyamalan operating in top form. This is a spoiler-free review.Updated: Nov 20, 2019 19:30 IST
Cast - Toby Kebbell, Lauren Ambrose, Nell Tiger Free, Rupert Grint, Tony Revolori
Once a pariah whose mere association with a project was considered box office poison, nothing solidifies M Night Shyamalan’s return to the mainstream than the manner in which Apple is marketing its new series, Servant, due out on November 28.
Even though Night is neither the creator of the show nor is he responsible for having directed the majority of its episodes, the psychological thriller is being sold as ‘M Night Shyamalan’s Servant’ – which is the sort of grandiose title that only vainglorious filmmakers such as Lars Von Trier and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to demand these days. And to think that just six years ago, Night name was deliberately kept off most marketing material for After Earth (a film that he directed and co-wrote), for fear that it would dissuade audiences from watching it.
Watch the Servant trailer here
But despite having very little to do with the inception of Servant, created and written by Tony Basgallop, his delicate fingerprints are all over the show. It is very common for studios to hire name filmmakers to direct pilot episodes of prestige programmes. The understanding is that they’d set the tone for the show – visually, stylistically – and lay the path for other directors to follow. Martin Scorsese directed episodes of Boardwalk Empire and the ill-fated Vinyl; David Yates helmed the pilot episode of Tyrant; David Fincher did Mindhunter. In fact, Night is no stranger to this strategy, having himself helmed episodes of Wayward Pines.
But this is the new Night, fresh off the success of Split and Glass, recently welcomed back into the good graces of Hollywood. And it’s brilliant to watch him operate on a level of finesse and confidence that had all but departed his body for several years.
The first episode of Servant is a class act, and it is Night’s deft handling of Basgallop’s script that considerably elevates what could so easily have been a ridiculous story in less steady hands. Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose play a young Philadelphia couple, who hire a teenage nanny for their newborn son. Immediately, thanks to Night’s impeccable staging, blocking, and pacing, it is clear that there is something very off about Sean and Dorothy Turner.
Their smiles are forced, their manner is strained, and their eyes can’t seem to be able to hide an unmistakable sadness. The hollow hallways of their grand house have the warmth of a morgue, and most unnervingly, there is a silence; an eerie quiet that feels all too unnatural for a home with a newborn child in it.
Sean is a consulting chef, perpetually tinkering with food, striving for a perfection that is clearly missing from his life; Dorothy is a TV news reporter, her hours in front of the camera training her to put on a brave face off it. But what are they hiding? What tragedy are they covering up?
I can’t say. That would be spoiling some legitimately creepy twists, handled expertly by the master himself. And you wouldn’t want that. So avoid spoilers, avoid watching the trailers and reading interviews, and allow the storytellers to control the narrative.
Servant is a show about the rich at war with the poor, about superstition clashing with rationality, and about how, when confronted with things we do not quite understand, we react with fear. The tone is at constant odds with the visuals. The pristine house, the fine clothes, the glacial camera moves; none can mask the lingering stench of something sinister being afoot.
Often, especially in the first episode, Night has characters speak directly into the camera, as if to probe their souls, to expose their fallacies, and to perhaps provide them with an opportunity to emerge from their traumas. Sean and Dorothy’s marriage is crumbling; of that there is no doubt, but it isn’t immediately revealed why. Night is skilled at controlling the amount of information he wants to reveal to the audience, almost as if he is tweaking an imaginary dial to catch the perfect frequency.
Three episodes can currently be written about, but more than any other show Apple has released so far, this is the one that demands to be stuck with till the end.