Cult television took on a whole new meaning last year when stuck-at-home viewers got hooked on the blockbuster documentary serials The Vow and Seduced, both of which chronicled the rise and fall of the notorious NXIVM cult and its since-imprisoned leader, Keith Raniere. Those shows were the latest entries in an increasingly popular sub-genre of non-fiction series that take a deep dive into the inner workings of groups ranging from the Rajneeshpuram to Heaven’s Gate. Count M. Night Shyamalan among the growing population of cult TV obsessives. “I just find it endlessly fascinating,” the celebrated director of hits like The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I got obsessed reading about [Charles] Manson and the trials, and Jim Jones — all of that stuff.” (Watch our video interview above.)
Now, Shyamalan has crafted his own cult story in Servant, the Apple TV+ series that debuts its second season on Jan. 15. The show’s freshman season introduced viewers to Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell), a married couple who confronted the loss of their child by “raising” a reborn doll — a startlingly lifelike recreation of an infant. (And we do mean startling: “Scary Jerry” was the breakout star of Season 1.) As the season wound down, Shyamalan dropped one of his classic twists, revealing that the nanny (Nell Tiger Free) the Turners had hired to care for their “child” was raised in a cult, the Church of the Lesser Saints. That storyline continues into Season 2, which reveals wild new details about the particular cult of crazy the couple now has to contend with.
Coincidentally enough, the second season of Servant was in production while The Vow unspooled on HBO, but Shyamalan insists they didn’t take any direct inspiration from the NXIVM story. “It didn’t have any impact on our piece. We had kind of talked about this cult aspect at the end of Season 1... and as soon as it came up, I was like ‘That’s it, we’re definitely doing it.’ They’re very scary and you get to do that kind of invasion of a home feeling over and over and over again with a cult.”
It’s worth noting that Shyamalan has dabbled in cult storytelling before. His 2004 film, The Village, takes place in an isolated community where all of the residents follow a strict belief system established by a council of elders who know a secret that they’re keeping hidden from their families and followers. “A lot of people now talk about The Village given everything that’s been happening,” Shyamalan says, alluding to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the renewed interest in cults. “The idea of what we believe in is something that’s repeated over and over [in my work]. Do we believe there are aliens out there, or do we believe in ghosts or do we believe there are real-life people who are comic book heroes. Belief systems are what I traffic in a lot.”
And he may be passing that fascination with belief systems onto his own kids. One of the key episodes of Servant’s season season is directed by his daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan, making it a real family affair. “She’s an amazing person,” Shyamalan raves. “She’s been trained her whole life for this. She’s a very different person and storyteller [than me], but I knew the time was right.” During production, he made sure to treat her as he would any other director. “For the most part, I let everybody just go and direct on the stage. I don’t hover, and especially with my daughter, I didn’t want to hover! She did such great work on that episode.”
With The Vow returning for a second season on HBO later this year, it’s clear that there’s still an appetite for stories about NXIVM and other cults. Asked whether there’s a chance that he and his daughter might team up for a fictionalized version of the NXIVM story, Shyamalan just laughs. “Don’t get her going! I’m sure she’ll get obsessed by it.”
Servant Season 2 premieres Friday, Jan. 15 on Apple TV+.
—Video produced by Jen Kucsak and edited by Jimmie Rhee
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