Funny, terrifying, and brilliant in equal measure, Apple TV+’s “Severance” is one of the most impressive new shows of the last couple years. Indebted to the world-bending works of Charlie Kaufman and Franz Kafka, but also refreshingly original, "Severance" tells a complex story of unimaginable technology that takes place in an exaggerated, impossible world that still feels relatable and deeply human. Anchored by a perfectly calibrated performance from Adam Scott and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife Mcardle, “Severance” balances a twisty narrative with characters who we come to care about and want to see escape a kind of work drudgery that only smart genre fiction could conceive.
Half of “Severance” takes place in a small department called MacroData Technology at a business called Lumon Industries. There are no windows. There are no posters on the walls. Four cubicles sit in the center of the room, at which four employees mine data, a process that consists of looking at numbers and waiting for a feeling about them to make it clear that those numbers need to be shuffled off into a folder. It’s dull data work of the future, but the employees seem relatively happy, discussing potential perks for their success like waffle parties.
There’s a new hire in the premiere, a woman named Helly (Britt Lower), who is introduced on a conference room table. She’s asked a series of questions that reveal she has no idea who she is or why she’s there. Helly has been subjected to a controversial procedure called the “severance” program, which is required to work at Lumon. An implant is put in an employee’s brain that “severs” their home and work life. One will not have any memory of the other. For all intents and purposes, this version of Helly is “born” in Lumon, and everything that happens there will be wiped from her memory as she takes the elevator home that night.
Helly is guided by Mark (Scott), who has been promoted after his best friend Petey (Yul Vazquez) was suddenly fired. The new responsibility on top of the severing of one of his only companions—remember these people, referred to as “innies,” have only their co-workers in their lives—has sent Mark reeling. It gets worse when Helly basically fights back, trying over and over again to leave Lumon, only to have her “outey” keep sending her to work. Mark’s co-workers—the gregarious Dylan (Zach Cherry) and refined Irving (John Turturro)—try to help, but the conflict draws the attention of a mysterious boss named Peggy (Patricia Arquette) and her enforcer Milchick (Tramell Tillman). Christopher Walken and Dichen Lachman also play Lumon employees who will forever change the lives of Helly and Mark.
Of course, the “outey” version of Mark has a story. A quiet soul, he’s still grieving the loss of his wife in a car accident, giving the very concept of “Severance” additional emotional weight—who wouldn’t consider leaving that kind of pain behind for eight hours a day? Mark has a pregnant sister named Devon (Jen Tullock) and a brother-in-law (Michael Chernus) who don’t think he made a healthy decision. And then the world of Lumon starts to invade Mark’s life on the surface, challenging him to reconsider what he’s doing at work every day, and how we can’t really live two lives.
There are some big, fascinating questions at play in “Severance” about grief, connection, and identity. The work/life divide has been a talking point, especially during the pandemic, but what if it was literal? What would that mean? There are also questions about why a business would want severed employees and the moral implications that would entail. What are they hiding? What can we handle not knowing about ourselves and those we work for when we’re behind a desk?
Creator Dan Erickson spins his concept in consistently unexpected, riveting ways, pushing his characters through a perfectly balanced series of plot twists and character revelations. The writing may be a bit out there for some viewers, and there’s a tiny narrative sag mid-season before an incredible final couple episodes push to a spectacular cliffhanger, but the ensemble grounds it, keeping us engaged with the people as much as their predicaments. Scott plays the two Marks with subtle differentiation. The work Mark is just a little more bright-eyed and optimistic. He’s not carrying the crushing weight of grief. Turturro and Walken get an arc that I wouldn’t spoil but that’s surprisingly lovely. Lower is fantastic in the early episodes although kind of fades into the background a bit mid-season. And then there’s Arquette, nailing the very unusual part of the mysterious woman trying to keep this house of cards from falling.
Unlike a lot of television, even in the Prestige Era, “Severance” also has a strong visual language and overall craftsmanship. Stiller directs the first couple episodes with a foreboding sense that’s somehow still playful—in the same fashion that Kaufman’s films can be both funny and terrifying in the same scene. We marvel at the ingenuity of the concepts in “Severance” and then are hit with what it all really means when our work self can never leave. The gorgeous (and yet somehow ominous) score by Theodore Shapiro (Stiller’s regular composer on his films) flows in and out of “Severance” in a way that makes it easier to get lost in this show, marveling at everything it does so well while asking ourselves what it means when we say we wish we could leave work behind when we go home at night. Are you sure?
Whole season screened for review.