In SEVERANCE (Apple TV), the stars align with near perfection in regards to story, pacing, casting, direction, and world building to offer a stylish, heartfelt sci-fi-ish story about work and corporate America. This was a real treat that struck me soft and hard on multiple levels. I loved it.
Mark works for Lumon Industries, a mysterious, old family-owned corporation that has a floor where the workers agreed to undergo “severance,” a procedure that separates their memories and identities at work and at home. Struck by grief after losing his wife, Mark agreed to the procedure so he could stop thinking about her for part of the day. As a result, there are two Marks with no knowledge of the other, one at work, the other at home. Mark’s work-life balance is upended when his supervisor disappears and he must take over as department chief, training a new employee (Helly) who doesn’t want to be there, and at home, he begins to suspect that Lumon is not the good place he thought it was.
When I first heard of it, I thought it might end up being another OFFICE SPACE, satire that made me laugh but stuck to one lane. Not so with SEVERANCE, which rolls out like a Ted Chiang short story, exploring a subject by peeling away every possible layer to find its beating heart. Directed with a perfectionist energy by Ben Stiller, the result is funny, serious, thoughtful, and engaging. A thinky work of art that doesn’t feel thinky, an engaging story that dodges contrivance, and funny, without taking a single easy shot, to the point where the comedy is almost subliminal.
The world building is terrific, with plenty of lore, weirdness, and mystery as a hook. The sci-fi premise feels natural and lived in–similar to ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND–and the corporation is sterile and stylish and incredibly weird while also feeling familiar. The casting is perfect, with terrific stalwarts like Christopher Walken, John Turturro, and Patricia Arquette rounding out the stellar cast and characters where each feels highly distinctive and interesting. Adam Scott, in particular, brings a lot of depth to his everyman Mark, and Britt Lower brings an excellent quiet desperation to her portrayal of Helly. Thematically, the show is an onion peeled in layers but subtly, showing corporate America as a place where you’re not your real self, driven by the petty, obsessed with control, a world that in varying ways is a sterile prison, dictatorship, religion, even a cult. It’s capitalism with a human face, a happy face that on closer inspection is pretty damn ugly. It’s our choice whether we want to wear the same happy face or insist on our humanity.