Severance thrills with a sci-fi descent into workplace hell [Apple TV+ recap] | Cult of Mac

Severance thrills with a sci-fi descent into workplace hell [Apple TV+ recap]

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Adam Scott in Severance
Who said maintaining a work-life balance should be easy? Or nonsurgical?
Photo: Apple TV+

New Apple TV+ dark comedy/thriller Severance centers on a company man with an unusual relationship to himself and his job. Every day he goes to work, and his brain stays behind.

At work Mark’s a new man — one who doesn’t have to think about his grief or his petty social problems. At home, he’s a sad sack who doesn’t know he’s about to stumble into a conspiracy.

Comedy veteran Ben Stiller and first-time showrunner/writer Dan Erickson collaborated on Severance, which premieres Friday. The unconventional show takes pointed satirical swipes at modern workplace culture, but ultimately offers a deeper look at the meaning of life.

Severance season opener recap

In the first episode of Severance, titled “Good News About Hell,” Helly (played by Britt Lower) wakes up on a table at Lumon Industries with no memory of how she got there, who she is, or anything else about herself. All she’s aware of is that the voice of Mark (Adam Scott, best known as Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation) is talking to her from an intercom.

Helly gets furious and tries to leave. But when she realizes she can’t escape, she submits to answer five questions. What her’s name? Where is she from? Can she name a U.S. state? What’s her favorite color? What color were her mother’s eyes?

She can think of none of the answers (except one: Delaware) — and she attacks Mark when he comes in to debrief her. What happened? Where is she? Why can’t she remember anything?

You may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’

The answer to all these questions? She’s working at Lumon Industries, a corporation that takes the idea of work-life balance very seriously. So seriously that Lumon created a process called severance, whereby your memories are surgically split so that when you walk in the door of the building, all you know is what happens at your desk. When you leave at 5 p.m., you don’t remember anything you did that day, and go back to your normal life and all your memories.

Helly is deeply upset at first. But as they prove to her with video, she agreed to this and was excited about it two hours ago. So, she has no one to blame but herself. Her boss (Patricia Arquette) gives her a little pep talk, then chides Mark for bungling Helly’s initiation protocol.

Mark wasn’t supposed to be in charge. But the regular guy, Petey (Yul Vasquez), is gone. No warning, no sign of trouble, just gone. Mark is going to miss him. They were best friends. Or so he thinks.

Turns out Petey fled, as he tells Mark when he ambushes him the next day at a bar. Petey slips an envelope with evidence to his friend, along with a couple of cryptic warnings.

Nothing is what they say it is down at Lumon. Petey remembers everything — he’s unsevered. He remembers some nefarious things, and now Lumons is coming for him. Mark doesn’t know what to do with this information. He doesn’t think he’s being spied on, but then he also doesn’t know that his absent-minded neighbor Mrs. Selvig is really his boss at Lumon.

This is not my beautiful house

Adam Scott headlines Ben Stiller's new Apple TV+ show, <em>Severance.</em>
Adam Scott headlines Ben Stiller’s new show, Severance.
Photo: Apple TV+

It’s just a little bitterly ironic that Ben Stiller directed this show about toxic work environments, since some below-the-line Severance crew members complained on social media about on-set working conditions when the show’s trailer was announced. Stiller developed something of a reputation for being short-tempered on set. But very few American directors attempt what he does with film comedy, so perhaps it should be expected that his exacting attitude is the not-so-secret subtext of every show he works on. This is not to say anything excuses bad behavior on set. Nothing does.

That said, Severance is very good — and that’s as much because of the art team as it is Stiller’s direction. The show looks jaw-dropping. Stiller, writer/creator Dan Erickson and co-director/producer Aoife McArdle cultivated an aesthetic that doesn’t frequently make its way into the American mainstream.

They appear to pull from the deadpan modernism of comic auteurs Roy Andersson and Jacques Tati, who brought a self-conscious, cloying enormity to film comedy. Agoraphobic vistas and environments that stretch into infinity — these were where the gently morbid slapstick of Andersson and Tati would transpire.

Stiller et al mix it up a little, not relying on mere mimicry of the previous forms. Lumon has to look depressing, sure, but it also has to look menacing and otherworldly.

Series photographer Jessica Lee Gagné captures the buzzing, clinical life at Lumon magnificently. But she also photographs the outside world like it’s a horror movie waiting to happen. Gagné has been slowly building a resume of incredibly evocative movies as a cinematographer. Stiller first hired her for his mini-series Escape at Dannemora, but my personal favorite work of hers is Malgré la nuit, from French chronicler of extremity Philippe Grandrieux.

This is not my beautiful wife

As good as Severance looks, the writing isn’t all there. The show has a dystopian edge to it, which allows for all the workplace talk to feel properly stripped of affectation. The writing in the real world seems a little less evocative or interesting. There’s a scene at a dinner party thrown by Mark’s sister Devon (Jen Tullock) where we’re meant to infer that their discussion of world politics is supposed to be detached and pretentious, and the delivery of each actor sells it. This feels a little like Erickson created straw men to get mad at.

Elsewhere, some language issues stick out to me as entirely too contemporary.

For instance, Mark sees Petey standing in Devon’s yard but can’t catch him before he escapes. The next day, he confesses to his sister that he felt like he knew the man.

“Did the prowler in my yard make you feel seen?” Devon asks.

“So seen,” he says, sarcastically.

Again, it feels like they’re making fun of the way people talk — and it doesn’t jibe with the show’s institutional criticism, or its out-of-time feel. If you don’t like corporate culture, but you also talk down to both younger viewers and millennial audiences who also have problems with society, who’s left to take your critique seriously?

Same as it ever was

There’s also the subtext problem. The characters frequently speak in biblical allusions and say things like, “Forgetting about her for eight hours a day isn’t the same thing as healing.” As if we couldn’t have pieced together the meaning of the show.

Mark screams condescendingly at a protester trying to stop severance about how he’s heard that those who do it go to two separate hells. (Incidentally, the show walks a very fine line at first about whether it’s worth caring about Mark, detached and hostile as he is.) Adam Scott does his best with the character, but he’s a powerful performer to deploy, and I sometimes worry directors don’t understand that.

Scott’s hardly alone among amazing performers on this show, though. Everyone’s good, but special mention must be made of Patricia Arquette and John Turturro, who both do stupendous work as Severance’s malevolent boss and another office drone, respectively.

When the show stops telling us what it’s about and simply exists, it’s jaw-dropping stuff, gorgeous and haunting and upsetting. Theodore Shapiro‘s music sets the tone for a series that feels like a waking nightmare.

This is not everyday stuff for American TV. I think if Severance continues to embrace the nontraditional, to simply exist rather than insist, it could be truly great.

Watch Severance on Apple TV+

The first two episodes of Severance premiere February 18 on Apple TV+. Additional episodes arrive every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.