M. Night Shyamalan's 'Servant' Gives A Chilling Spin On Parental Grief This Thanksgiving [New York Comic-Con 2019]

A fine mist had settled on the damp streets of New York City on the first night of 2019's New York Comic-Con. It's the kind of gloomy, rainy night that evokes the eerie mood of many a M. Night Shyamalan movie. It's a fitting night to tease the Glass director's newest project and his latest foray into television: Apple TV+'s Servant. A psychological thriller series created and written by Tony Basgallop and executive produced by Basgallop and Shyamalan, Servant follows a Philadelphia couple (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) in mourning after an "unspeakable tragedy" causes a rift in their marriage and leads them to open their home to a mysterious nanny (Nell Tiger Free).

Shyamalan took the stage at the Servant New York Comic-Con 2019 panel Thursday, alongside Basgallop and the series stars Ambrose (Six Feet Under), Kebbell (Kong: Skull Island), Free (Game of Thrones), and Rupert Grint (Harry Potter), to introduce the series to the world and debut a first official trailer that, fittingly, opens on a rainy night.

Servant Trailer Reaction

Shyamalan debuted the first official trailer for Servant to the crowd at New York Comic-Con Thursday, roughly three weeks before the rest of the internet gets to see it. The teases for this half-hour thriller series have been enigmatic, to say the least, with few details to be gleaned out of 30-second teasers that show a lifelike baby doll getting its diaper changed. But the trailer finally reveals just what's up with that creepy doll.

The trailer opens with a couple opening their apartment door to greet their new nanny (Free), a stoic woman named Leanne, whom Sean (Kebbell) and Dorothy (Ambrose) have hired to take care of their child. But while Dorothy is immediately elated with Leanne's rapport with the baby, Sean is less so. "Couldn't we have hired someone less...weird?" he asks, suspiciously. It soon becomes clear why: their baby is actually a lifelike doll that Dorothy has become convinced is real.

"The premise of this piece is that a couple lost a child and they're doing fringe therapy with a doll," Shyamalan described during the Servant panel. "It's a real therapy. [But] it gets so extreme that the mother decides to hire a nanny to take care of the doll. It's sad but also super funny... That's the kind of tone I'm interested in, like with Split and The Visit, where you're so scared you're laughing."

Sean's brother-in-law (Grint) provides some of that levity with his wry comments on Sean's scheme, but the trailer's sense of unease only mounts as Sean attempts to reason with Leanne only for her to brush him off and continue to treat the doll as if it's real. It culminates in a painfully tense dinner sequence where it becomes clear that there's something strange about Leanne.

It's a promisingly haunting trailer that plays like Rosemary's Baby meets The Boy. The uneasy mood, the grab-bag of mysteries, and the exquisite character tensions are all peak Shyamalan, who directs two episodes of the series. But I can't imagine how this tight premise can play across a multi-episode series. It feels almost better suited toward a movie, which the cast kept referencing as well, comparing Servant to a film or a play. We'll have to see if it succeeds when it premieres on Apple TV+ on November 28, 2019.

Servant New York Comic-Con 2019 Panel

Several spotlights illuminate a lone table at the center of a stage in the Hammerstein Ballroom. The table is decked with wine glasses, bottles, and platters of fruit — a fitting if on-the-nose setting, considering the show's Thanksgiving premiere date. There's a Last Supper feeling to it as Shyamalan, Basgallop, and the cast of Servant settle down in the chairs around the table.

The attention to detail heaped on just the stage at New York Comic-Con extends to the set where they shot Servant in Philadelphia. The half-hour thriller is based in one location — the couple's apartment — and never leaves that area. Built out of a large warehouse in the city, the sets were almost fully functional — Kebbell recounted how he would cook dinners for the cast — and acted as a sort of clubhouse for the team, who constantly praised the level of detail given to the sets. "There's an almost play-like quality to it," Shyamalan said. "I like contained story. It's something that I can execute at a high level and not travel the world."

But how contained will it be? Shyamalan has high ambitions for where this story could go, imagining a 60-episode run over the course of six years. "The great thing about the format is it's a character-driven format. You come week to week to connect to the characters and I love that," Shyamalan said.

If we're stuck in one house with only four characters, we better connect with them. But Shyamalan was confident that the characters were cast perfectly. "It couldn't have been orchestrated any other way," Shyamalan gushed. "When I saw Lauren Ambrose's audition, it was like a lightning bolt. Toby auditioned and this guy felt like a revelation. And then Rupert from Harry Potter, he came in, and he's transcendent in the show; it's like a different human being from what we saw as a child. Everyone are incredibly physical actors, because it's a very contained piece. Nell walks in and against all of this energy, you have this quiet, mysterious quality of someone who's discovering themselves. That energy, the four of them, is like...magic."

But audiences, who came out in droves for Shyamalan and cheered loudly for the director in the packed Hammerstein Ballroom despite some of his recent critical bombs, still might have trouble committing to a potential 6-season series on a relatively untested streaming platform. Apple TV+, which should be noted, has not confirmed a season-count or even an episode-count, has been amassing big names to create its original content, but is still an unknown factor in the crowded streaming battle. But Shyamalan implied that he shopped Servant around a few places, and ultimately settled on Apple "because I felt there was a connection between our aesthetic and them as a company and their minimalism."

"[It's] an opportunity to help define a place, Shyamalan said. "This new movement in how you watch content, we get to be with the biggest company in the world. This company has, I think, 1.6 billion devices. That kind of reach and say, 'Let's tell a longform story,' is incredible."

Servant premieres on Apple TV+ on November 28, 2019.