For all his efforts to shed assumptions over the years, M. Night Shyamalan still carries an expectation with his name: Namely, that in whatever story he’s telling, a twist is coming. “The Sixth Sense” established his brand. Despite playing in different genres, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” cemented the association. But like “The Village” and “The Happening” — two films approaching opposite ends of the qualitative spectrum (“The Village” is a good romance, while “The Happening” is a bad disaster movie) — Shyamalan’s latest suffers from lingering expectations, even though it’s written by Tony Basgallop (“Berlin Station”), not the Oscar-nominated scribe.
The Apple TV+ series, “Servant,” feels like a good fit between story and storyteller. Basgallop’s creepy, trauma-driven tale of a grieving couple trying to recover from the death of their newborn relishes every opportunity to get under its audience’s skin. Shyamalan, whose savvy scenic compositions are often ignored in favor of his choices as a writer, doesn’t have to worry about the latter here, and setting all the events inside one multi-story Philadelphia residence pushes him to focus on framings, blocking, and other formal areas in which he excels.
And yet, “Servant” feels so much like a Shyamalan story that those unwanted expectations only compound the problem, as the half-hour entries repeatedly build to less than the sum of their parts. Throughout the 10-episode first season, it often feels like some big twist is waiting at the end of this episode, or the next, or the next one after that, until you’re finished and the payoff doesn’t quite live up to the hype. That’s not to say there aren’t secrets or surprises, moments of charged excitement and heart-shaking pain, as well as strong acting and some of Shyamalan’s more accomplished constructions. (The ninth episode is particularly well-executed, with framings so precise your eyes crawl the edges, looking for more than you’re allowed to see — or want to, really.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Servant” shouldn’t be spoiled, even if it’s not as dependent on reveals as it is on presentation, atmospherics, and performances. Meet the Turners. Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) is a Philadelphia-based field reporter who’s just going back to work after having her first child. Sean (Toby Kebbell) is a stay-at-home chef who creates new dishes, takes on the occasional catering gig (for high-profile clients like the Philadelphia Eagles), and even plays celebrity food judge on TV, following in the footsteps of his locally famous wife.
To help ease their busy lives, Dorothy and Sean hire a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free). They have plenty of room in their spacious old house, and each member of the couple is quite successful in their respective fields, so a Wisconsin-born 18-year-old comes to live with them while offering full-time help.
Sounds pretty standard, right? Well, here’s the first of two major, early twists (and the only one OK to spoil, based on what’s shown in the trailer): Dorothy and Sean don’t have a child. Their newborn died, and Dorothy suffered a complete nervous breakdown. Since then, Sean has been using a therapy doll to help her get through her pain. Both partners pretend the plastic toy is their real son, Jericho, and Leanne is hired to go along with the ruse, too, even though Sean is worried hiring help for a fake baby is taking things one step too far.
The two leads are a huge asset: Kebbell is a compelling audience stand-in, at once a heavy-drinking man’s man who kills eels with his bare hands before cooking them up for dinner and a broken father, husband, and friend, trapped in a cycle of pretending everything’s normal because to do anything else could mean giving up their blissful false reality. Ambrose makes big, wild choices early in the show to convince the audience that yes, this woman would pretend her toy baby is real — but slowly, the off-putting extremities she gives to Dorothy are turned into comic relief (her on-the-scene news reports are hysterical) and later pulled back to reveal hard truths.
“Servant” also admirably avoids trying to inflate its own importance: This is meant as entertainment, first and foremost, meaning the show is often funny, silly, and accepting of its own outlandishness. If anything, there’s not enough pure fun. What remains most compelling is the central question posed in the pilot: What happened to Jericho? Why was a real baby replaced by a fake baby, and why is this mysterious young nanny so eager to go along with it? That, as well as what happens at the end of Episode 1, offer an intriguing premise for an unnerving mystery, a psychological thriller, a supernatural horror show, and plenty more genre backdrops. Moreover, the cast is game for anything, Shyamalan is ready to make this big, old house come to life, and the half-hour format is perfect for a taut marathon viewing session.
All of these elements are meant to enhance and fulfill the show’s out-there premise, and instead, they only help prop it up for five hours. As a clue that the show’s concept might be better than the fully-realized story: The season drags in the middle, even with 30-minute episodes; like Basgallop and Shyamalan are trying to speed things up, even when they have nowhere to go. To say “Servant” throws the fake baby (its premise) out with the bathwater (extraneous drama, time, and self-importance) isn’t quite right — it’s a good premise, surrounded by good ideas, and yet there’s no saving something that was never alive to begin with.
“Servant” premieres its first three episodes Thursday, November 28. Apple TV+ will release new episodes each Friday thereafter.