If you like your concepts higher than a hot air balloon, Severance could be your next obsession. The absorbing new satire-thriller asks viewers to climb into a world in which some people choose to have the connection between their work lives and their personal lives severed. What does this mean? It means that their work self – the “innie” – is oblivious to the existence of their personal self – the “outie”. And vice versa. The severing, carried out by Lumon Industries, ensures in theory (and never has ‘in theory’ needed to be underlined more) that workers are happier for not carrying their messy social lives into the office. And vice versa.
For Mark Scout (Adam Scott), this arrangement works out pretty well. He is the answer to the question: ‘Why would anyone choose to be severed?’ Mark opted to have his brain opened up in this way because his wife died and the grief was ruining his life as a professor. Far better, he thought, not to have to think about her for eight hours a day. Though the awareness of her death in his personal life causes him to drink heavily, at Lumon he is a soulless office drone, blessed with the luxury of ignorance.
But the seams of this divide begin to tear. Not only does new recruit Helly (Britt Lower) rebel from the inside, raging against Mark and fruitlessly trying to send messages to her outie, but a recently-departed colleague, Petey (Yul Vasquez), shows up in Mark’s outie world and tries to warn him about Lumon’s evil. Slowly but surely, Mark begins to question his comforting prison.
The show, directed by Ben Stiller, is a breathtaking accomplishment that takes its time with its distinctive premise, never spoon-feeding nor losing focus. Though the minimalist expanses of Lumon’s offices are intended to encapsulate the soullessness of corporate life, they help the show look sumptuous. Created for Apple TV+, a lot of the sets look like adverts for the tech company’s sleek aesthetic. And, though the premise is clearly nightmarish (Helly has one of the best lines in the series: “I guess this is the part where I should tell you to go to Hell… except you’re already here”), Severance is extremely funny a lot of the time: the eeriness of the goings-on at Lumon lend almost every conversation an off-kilter tone, and the company’s bizarre workplace rewards – including an MDE (Musical Dance Experience) – are delightfully strange. As the evangelising Irving, John Turturro butts heads with Zach Cherry’s Dylan, the self-appointed badass of the group, and their exchanges about the minutiae of their work are always funny. Having your brain severed doesn’t mean your colleagues stop being annoying.
Severance works both as a statement on office life – particularly relevant as we all bid farewell to working side by side with our colleagues – and as a satire of the religious mindset. Lumon’s founder Kier Egan is revered as a god. As he is not long dead, Egan and his followers resemble Joseph Smith and the Mormons (who rapidly expanded in the century after Smith’s passing). Whenever various tiny rebellions are mooted, key parts of Egan’s scripture are quoted – invariably by Irving – as a way of reenforcing the status quo. As the people actually enforcing all the rules, Peggy Cobell (Patricia Arquette) and Mr Milchick (Tramell Tillman) become deliciously deranged, with Arquette proving particularly haunting. That’s before we even get to Christopher Walken, whose interactions with Turturro are a delight.
So, great cast, great writing, great premise, great everything. The whole package. The home run. If ever you were in doubt about returning to the office, Severance gives it to you straight: don’t bother.
‘Severance’ is streaming now on Apple TV+