Less than a month after its launch, streaming service Apple TV+ on Nov. 28 is rolling out its latest series, the creepy thriller Servant executive produced by Philadelphia-based film director M. Night Shyamalan.
Given Shyamalan’s involvement — he also directs two episodes in the 10-episode first season — it should come as no surprise that there’s a twist in the pilot episode that introduces Philadelphia couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose, Six Feet Under) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebell, Fantastic Four).
She’s a Philly TV news reporter; he’s a fancy-pants chef. They’ve suffered a family tragedy that results in Dorothy caring for a doll that substitutes for the baby they lost under circumstances that are not immediately explained.
In the first episode, Dorothy even hires a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free, Game of Thrones), who’s oddly accepting of Dorothy’s unusual form of therapy.
“More than anything it’s a couple that’s refusing to accept something that happened,” Shyamalan says of the Servant premise. “They’re using their wealth and status as a shield. … It’s fractured underneath it all and they’re just barely holding together.”
Set and filmed in Philadelphia from November 2018 to March 2019, Servant made its home in a former paint factory in Bethel Township, Delaware County, where the interior of the Turner home was built. Exteriors were shot near Spruce and 21st Streets in Center City.
Not that Philly was the show’s original setting.
Servant writer/creator Tony Basgallop (Hotel Babylon) says the show was originally placeless, then moved to London and then onto New York before Shyamalan got involved and shifted it to his adopted hometown. That was fine by Basgallop, whose vision wasn’t city-dependent.
“I loved the idea of a big old brownstone and the family that lives inside those walls,” Basgallop says. “Philadelphia has the same kind of beautiful architecture and the structure is so important to the show because it reflects the class and style of the family.”
Basgallop says his inspiration for Servant was fatherhood.
“The notion that anything can go wrong, [children are] very precious and there’s no handbook on how you raise them,” he says. “That constant fear, ‘What if I mess up? What if I’m responsible for something that happens?’ In the early years, that was always preying on my mind.”
Servant isn’t Shyamalan’s first series effort. It follows the 2015-16 Fox drama Wayward Pines. Shyamalan says he’s more involved in Servant.
“I own the show, it’s a very different thing,” he says. “I’m the studio on it. and we’re doing it at a very modest budget. And the reason I say that is it allows us in our own heads to take risks, tonal risks, and it’s a values system that isn’t about solving [problems] with money but coming up with the beauty of things like performance and lighting and texture of clothing and all the things we have access to that don’t necessarily mean you spend a ton of money.”
That includes limited locations. Most of the show takes place inside the Turner brownstone.
“Essentially it’s a horror story, a supernatural thriller, and it feels like the more contained you are in a claustrophobic space, the easier it is to play tension,” Basgallop says. “Everything I wanted to happen was always going to happen in the house, anyway. The story is about the family. Why break away and go to a different place?”
Shyamalan’s involvement also had a lot to do with his proximity to the stages where Servant filmed, unlike Wayward Pines, which was produced in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“I can’t be there every day if it’s in Vancouver,” he says. “If it’s shot here and I’m working on my movie, writing in the office, then I can walk down the hall and check on shooting on Servant. I can’t do that when I’m 3,000 miles away.”
Shyamalan directed the first and ninth episodes. Why nine instead of the season finale, No. 10?
“Episode nine is where we tell you what happened to this family. I wanted to be the one telling that part of the story.”
Like last year’s Amazon Prime Video thriller Homecoming, Servant episodes run about 30 minutes as opposed to the typical 42 minutes-to-one hour for most drama series. Its premiere will include three episodes; subsequent ones will premiere each Friday.
“The sole reason we were able to be successful with what we were doing is it’s a fantastic format for mystery,” Shyamalan says. “I’m surprised it’s not been done extensively.”
If Servant gets renewed for a second season, Shyamalan says he plans to remain involved — he’s working on no other series currently, just writing his next film — although how many episodes he would direct is unclear.
Shyamalan and Basgallop both say they have worked together to map out a plan for future Servant seasons and they have an end point in mind.
“We’re not just making stuff up as we go along,” Basgallop says. “There’s mythology behind it and logic to it. As each season is revealed we see another part of that.”