- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
In the United States, where we pioneered the concept of supersized fast food, transformed vaccinations of all kinds into a political issue and invented Twitter, somehow the most unhealthy thing we’ve done as a culture is fetishizing work under the umbrella of the American Dream.
We labor ridiculous hours, lionize billionaires who couldn’t care less about anybody in our respective tax brackets and we — probably not you, dear reader, but definitely somebody you’re friends with on Facebook — treat it as weakness when countries exercise any restraint, be it an afternoon siesta, a normalized month of summer holiday or extended maternity/paternity leaves.
Airdate: Friday, February 18 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, Tramell Tillman, John Turturro, Patricia Arquette and Christopher Walken
Creator: Dan Erickson
We have so much admiration for work that this spring’s most popular television genre — TV is the one thing we reliably partake in outside of work, unless we happen to be TV critics, in which case it’s not “outside of work” — is celebrating con artists, people who work extraordinarily hard to create the illusion of working. We may not like Anna Delvey or Elizabeth Holmes or the WeWork folks, but darned if we don’t admire their commitment.
Let’s say you have a healthy relationship to work, that you don’t approach “work-life balance” as a glib punchline. You still might like Apple TV+’s new series Severance, but chances are good that you’ll approach it as a comedy or possibly as pure absurdist fantasy. That’s fine. More viewers, though, are likely to watch Dan Erickson’s series as only borderline science fiction, a tone-blending speculative series in which nearly every element is all too relatable, whether that makes it funny or sad or straight-up horrifying.
Severance, which boasts direction from Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, isn’t always consistent in its momentum, but it starts with conceptual strength, closes with an episode of bracing suspense and, in between, is carried by a stacked ensemble of names big and small alike.
Adam Scott is the center of that ensemble, as Mark. Still grieving the death of his wife, Mark made the controversial decision to undergo a process known as “severance,” pioneered by and for a company called Lumon. The process, which involves a freaky cranial implant of a not-so-micro chip, produces full separation between the subject’s work and home selves.
It’s a bifurcated path that leaves each individual with both an “innie” and “outie” self — dehumanizing through double-humanizing. Innies go to work without any memory of the bills they have to pay, the fights they had with their spouse or another depressing loss by their beloved sports teams. As they take the elevator to the Lumon exits after their 9-to-5, innies become outies and lose all memory of the project they’re struggling to complete, of the boss who doesn’t value their efforts, of work spouses and professional rivals.
What does Mark do at Lumon? Well, after the abrupt disappearance of his supervisor and pal Petey (Yul Vazquez), Mark has become the head of Macrodata Refinement, one of an incalculable number of entirely separate departments on the subterranean “severed” floor at Lumon. He monitors a team that includes Dylan (Zach Cherry), obsessed less with the job itself than the silly perks presented to those who do the job well, and Irving (John Turturro), a stickler for workplace protocol and devotee of the Eagan family, who are the founders of both the company and Kier, the company town where our characters all live. The latest addition to the team is Helly (Britt Lower), who serves as both a point-of-entry excuse for rudimentary job explanations — let’s just say that “macrodata refinement” involves isolating lines of code that are “unsettling” — and as the eyes of any skeptical viewer smug enough to think they’d quit after a day.
The operation is overseen by Harmony (Patricia Arquette), a stern bureaucrat who reports to an unseen Board, as well as gleeful purveyor of perks Milchick (Tramell Tillman) and more kindly wellness counselor Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman). The latter two are central to the system of rewards and punishments that keep the severed floor operational (in lieu of more traditional motivations like “family” and “property,” which innies are oblivious to).
Narratively, Severance is a slow burn, at least initially. Helly isn’t an initially enthusiastic participant. Mark, the only character whose outie we follow, is beginning to suspect something is worrisome at Lumon. And Irving has a budding friendship with Burt (Christopher Walken) from the Optics & Design department, which causes tension with Dylan, who has somehow convinced himself that MDR is in a fierce rivalry with the other departments.
What carries the show more than plot is viewer curiosity, and Erickson does a masterful job of parsing out details slower than you might want, but faster than it would take for true impatience to set in. Very pretentious viewers will compare the mixture of surrealism and minimalism to Beckett and Ionesco, with just a bit of Foucault thrown in. Somewhat pretentious viewers will compare the pervasive oddness and undercurrent of sadness to Charlie Kaufman. And viewers who really, really want Severance to be more story-driven will categorize it in the solution-to-overwork sci-fi genre with films like Multiplicity or the Adam Sandler opus Click.
And realistically, any and all comparisons probably apply, because Severance might not have immediate urgency, but it does a lot of things immediately. The nine episodes float in the vicinity of an hour and sometimes they’re carried by droll comedy, sometimes by eyebrow-raising wackiness and, as the stakes rise in the closing installments, a straight-up thriller. The directors — McArdle handles three middle episodes, with Stiller steering the other six — and cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagne patiently navigate Jeremy Hindle’s retro-futurist production design, creating alienation in the weirdly spare offices and closets and mining bursts of energy from long tracking shots through Lumon’s overlit and winding hallways.
None of this would work without an undercurrent of emotion that comes from the cast, all experts at landing beats of humor as well. Lower gives Helly a fierce curiosity and this ought to be the breakout that she’s deserved since her work on Casual and Man Seeking Woman. Turning his trademark sarcasm into something sad, wounded and confused, Scott is easy to empathize with. And although Dylan and Irving are presented as the type of annoying co-workers an un-severed person would normally go home and complain about, Cherry and Turturro find something deeper inside their respective eccentricities. The dynamic between Turturro and Walken is particularly special, evolving into something unique for whichever genre Severance happens to be evoking at any given moment.
Arquette’s severity, Tillman’s dangerous enthusiasm — he’s every boss who ever threw a token pizza party or staged a trust exercise to avoid a workplace revolt — and Lachman’s soothing calm enhance the peculiarity of life at Lumon, while Jen Tullock and Michael Chernus add welcome warmth as key figures in Mark’s outie life.
Shows with this level of quirkiness can often lose the ongoing thread and just become a suffocated diorama of world-building instead of a world in which a story is being told. Severance, though, gets more cumulatively effective as it goes along, and builds to a string of cliffhangers that left me eager for more instead of frustrated.
So come on, Apple TV+. Let’s get a fast renewal and get those writers, directors and actors back to business immediately. Work-life balance is for the lazy and the French!
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day
More from The Hollywood Reporter
‘TV’s Top 5’: Maureen Ryan on the Depths of ‘Burn It Down’ (Beyond ‘Lost’); Plus Finale-Mania
Scandal-Plagued U.K. Ex-TV Host Denies Grooming Much Younger Colleague, but Admits “I Did Something Very Wrong”
Lily Rabe on the Tragedy of Betty Gore Explored in ‘Love & Death’: “There’s So Much Misperception”