TV: Severance (Season 1)

Every writer probably comes across a show or four they imagine they should have written: a series that speaks to a specific sensibility or unrealized vision so thoroughly that it almost feels like a personal affront to see it completed by somebody else. Well, add Apple TV+’s Severance to that list for me. Oh, there’s no way I could have written this brilliant show, but five minutes into the first episode I knew it was for me: I spent over a decade trying to write something like it, including a failed TV pilot and an abandoned novel called Ubiquity, Ltd. (which I eventually turned into my Lightspeed novelette “The Men Who Change the World”). Now I can finally put that vague conceptual impulse to rest, because I’ve seen it done to perfection.

Imagine if there were a technology available enabling you to literally disocciate your professional life from your personal life, an implant that siloed your memories to keep these two arenas separate. This is the procedure Mark Scout (Adam Scott) undergoes to work at Lumon, a mysterious megacorporation that has perfected the severance procedure. Mark S. (as he is known to his severed colleagues) is a two-year veteran of Lumon’s Macro Data Refinement team, his soul-crushing daily task to sort blocks of wobbly numbers on a blurry CRT screen—and, more or less, he’s fine with his plight. One day at work, though, Mark’s boss and best friend Petey (Yul Vasquez) doesn’t show up. A replacement arrives in the form of Helly R. (Britt Lower), a baffled, rebellious newcomer who immediately struggles to come to grips with her new severed identity’s amnesia. Even as Mark flounders to fill Petey’s shoes and onboard Helly, his non-work alter ego is battling grief over the death of his wife—the event that led to his decision to undergo severance. Outside-Mark’s life is thrown into disarray when he’s approached by Petey, whom he doesn’t know in this context. Petey fills him in, though, and their initial encounter gradually leads both Marks down an investigative rabbit hole, as clues and communications from the two lives traverse the brain-implant boundary that separates them.

To be honest, Severance’s speculative premise didn’t initially pique my interest. On its face, the notion is broad, high-concept, and unrealistic, and in the wrong hands might have turned into something like Netflix’s lackluster Living with Yourself, which has a similar two-pronged speculative approach but fails to explore it with satisfying rigor. On the strength of Severance’s cast, however, I plunged in and found it instantly captivating, particularly for its bizarre setting and eerie aesthetic. The mesmerizing look quickly proves a gateway to the theme: the bleak, institutional, “severed” floors of Lumon, lingeringly shot by directors Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle, propel the premise right into metaphor-land. It’s clear from the first scene that this is a story about broken work-life balance, toxic corporate labor policy, and the relentless, soul-crushing churn of capitalism. Through Mark, it’s readily apparent that the idea of partitioning emotional trauma out of the workplace is an unhealthy idea…but it’s also a requirement of the job, which strictly enforces codes of conduct, monitors unproductive behavior, and works to ensure efficiency by maintaining unnatural work-life boundaries. It is, in other words, just like most jobs today, exaggerated for dramatic effect. The approach puts Severance’s agenda right out in front, more efficiently perhaps than any series I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of efficiency, knowing Mark’s reason for undergoing Severance very quickly feeds into a sense of mystery about other characters, starting with his co-workers: Helly, Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry). Surely all of them have their reasons for making such a drastic life choice, but what are they? Then there are the department’s supervisors, the freakishly ubiquitous Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman) and their icy boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who treat them with a mix of condescending positive reinforcement and emotional abuse. What drives their decisions? Are they severed? The pilot episode positively drips with mystery after mystery, and as the season unfolds, the mysteries deepen as the stakes and weirdnesses mount. Indeed, for all the tense Kafkaesque plot contortions keeping you on the edge of your seat, the aspect that most troubled me throughout was the the worry that Severance wouldn’t be able to bring it home. Shows that rely on inexplicable mystery run the risk of either losing control of their lore-heavy threads, or demystifying themselves into something unsatisfying. It’s possible that fate may still befall Severance, which was just renewed for a second year, but it certainly doesn’t happen in this perfectly clocked season, which ends with a fascinating, urgent finale that solves just enough mysteries to be satisfying while still leaving tons of unexplained intrigue. Other shows have tried to walk this fine line, but rarely have I seen it this well executed.

Aesthetics and theme may dominate the conversation, but there are so many other elements that feed into and support the show’s mission. The music, in particular an eerie theme song by Theodore Shapiro, is sheer perfection. The mindbending animated credit sequence is spectacular. The set design and lighting in the maze-like warren of Lumon hallways contribute an air of Lynchian weirdness to a Brazil-like, out-of-time quasi-future. The scripts are quirky, smart, funny, and terrifying. And the cast is full-on sensational from top to bottom, with first-rate work from Lower, Turturro, Cherry, Arquette, Vazquez, Christopher Walken, Jen Tullock, and Michael Chernus. Special mention should also go out to Tillman, whose uncanny presence is equally funny and terrifying, and Dichen Lachman, never better as a similarly odd wellness counselor. But the show belongs to Scott, who does his best work here to date—and that’s saying something, because Scott has always excelled at bemused straight-guy roles, but he plumbs the depths of this one, mixing heart-rending emotion in with his usual pitch-perfect comic deliveries. His performance further draws out the rich themes of the show, not to mention its timely subject matter; he brings just enough grief, stoicism, and exasperation to a role that speaks to both pandemic exhaustion and the new, critical way we’re examining work as a result of it. If he doesn’t get nominated for all the awards for this, they must not mean anything.

I haven’t been this impressed by, or excited about, a new show for years; it’s just a perfect storm of Peak TV excellence that went straight to the core of me.

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