[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Servant Seasons 1 and 2.]
It comes to no one’s surprise that Apple would take advantage of their streaming service, AppleTV+, to promote their own products. Take for example the streaming service’s flagship show, The Morning Show, in which “Apple products are visible in an average of 32 camera shots per episode, and an Apple logo is visible in roughly one-third of those shots” of the first season, according to the Wall Street Journal. Product placement in general has become more and more prevalent in blockbusters such as the Transformers films and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But while those films often blatantly promote brands by shoving a product in the faces of audiences, like in how Mark Walhberg cracks open a bottle of Bud Light in the middle of wreckage in Transformers: Age of Extinction, Apple TV+’s Servant uses Apple’s technology for more than marketing and promotions. Instead, the show takes creative and innovative approaches in including iPads, iPhones, and Apple TVs, as well as other devices and technologies. Not only do they help expand the show’s setting and worldbuilding, but they help inform the characters and story of Servant and play an integral role in revealing plot details and character backstories.
Servant mostly takes place in the Turners’ vertical city home in Philadelphia, where Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) make a more-than-comfortable living. There is a wine cellar underneath, a ground floor with a living room and kitchen, a second floor with three bedrooms — the Turners’ room, the nursery for the doll-turned-baby Jericho, and the guest room for their new nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) — and an attic that is further explored in the second season. There are elements of the Gothic here, which help evoke the uncomfortable terror and suspense throughout the show: a winding staircase, close quarters, hidden spaces between walls, and the red bricked foundations of the home formed around the wine cellar. Apart from brief scenes outside and around the block, the show’s setting remains in these closed-off, claustrophobic rooms.
And yet, the show manages to escape a sense of smallness and builds out a world outside by utilizing screens and devices. When Julian (Rupert Grint) and private investigator Roscoe (Phillip James Brannon) go to investigate Leanne’s burned down home in Wisconsin, they communicate with the Turners via FaceTime on an iPad. Dorothy, who is a news reporter for the local Philadelphia news channel, is often seen on the living room television and reports live from the scene of a story. Sean, while at home as a stay-at-home chef and culinary expert, records Dorothy’s clips and saves them on discs, which become even more important as the plot details are revealed throughout the show. In one recording, a young Leanne is revealed to have met Dorothy years ago during a pageant. In another recording, Dorothy reports on the death of a cult leader and the apparent dismantling of the community of religious radicals, the same cult who took in Leanne and raised her after her parents died in a fire. So, not only do these devices provide the show’s creators a way to expand the world, but they also provide an opportunity to offer exposition and plot twists.
The show’s use of devices to help expand the setting is best demonstrated in Servant’s third episode of Season 2. When the Turners look for Leanne, who has left with Jericho and the weird and maybe even supernatural cult, they employ Sean’s chef assistant Tobe (Tony Revolori) to deliver pizza to Leanne’s new place of employment. The whole sequence is transmitted by Tobe to the Turners via a spy camera. The effect is almost like watching a found footage thriller, as Tobe wanders the residence of Leanne’s new employers, who are a bedridden woman and her husband, still and sleeping in a chair. But the tension and suspense is highetend on Tobe’s second visit, as the Turners still observe from their living room television. Tobe confronts Leanne on why she left and asks her to come back. Things take a turn for the worse when Leanne, having eaten the pizza, begins to choke and falls to the floor. It’s revealed that Dorothy has drugged the pizza, proving that, now, she is willing to do anything to save and find her son.
Thematically, the Turners’ use of technology juxtaposes the religious frugality of the cult. The Turners’ access to all these devices is a reflection of their wealth and bourgeois social standing. Julian, for instance, is always dressed in dapper clothing — his wardrobe is all dress attire and sport coats. He also drives a luxury car which has self-parking capabilities. His faith in a car to safely parallel park trumps his own faith in anything spiritual and religious. He’s an atheist, as his sister Dorothy points out. The Turners, and Julian specifically, present a nuanced juxtaposition to Leanne, her Uncle George (Boris McGiver), and the rest of the cult, their main antagonists. The Church of Lesser Saints is fully devoted to the Christian God, and they believe themselves to be his agents who perform miracles for those in need. They believe in hay-stitched crosses and natural healing salves. And while they aren’t entirely opposed to technology, they are a bit behind. Their primary mode of video is Betamax tape, on which the cult records their absurd training videos.
In a behind the scenes featurette, executive producer M. Night Shyamalan explains, “I encouraged the writers and the directors to go to big places and let me see it through this box.” And to the writers’ and directors’ credit, the show definitely feels bigger even as much of it is presented in the squares and boxes of devices. He goes on to say how “the devices are the way you see the world” and that he “loves that constriction.” Shyamalan himself has experimented with such constraints in his found footage horror The Visit. And he’s also no stranger to small, tight spaces, as he used the confined setting of Split to evoke a sense of claustrophobic fear as the Beast (James McAvoy) and his other personalities toy with his kidnapped victims like Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). Furthermore, apart from his role as executive producer, Shyamalan even directs a few episodes across seasons one and two.
It’s refreshing to see a show use an opportunity such as product placement to take creative and innovative risks. And while season one was filmed prior to the pandemic, the production of season two was halted due to the pandemic and picked up again later in 2020, as Shyamalan tweeted. The constraints of trying to complete production during the pandemic might have even forced the team behind Servant to up their game in formulating new ways to use technology. Of course, Servant’s use of technology is one-hundred percent corporate synergy on Apple’s part, but the Apple devices shown throughout the show do more than become flashy advertisements. They enhance the show’s domestic setting, open up the story to new and unexpected twists, and add interesting layers on top of the already intriguing and unique premise. With Servant Season 3 already filming, it will be interesting to see how else Apple products can add onto the show’s intrigue and success.
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He also talks about what it was like for him when ‘Star Trek’ ended after the 3rd season.
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