'Severance' Is the First Must-Watch Show of the Year
The twisty Apple TV+ thriller creates one hell of a work/life balance.
In your adult life you hear a lot of talk about separating your home from your job, creating a "work/life balance" so that you don't catch yourself doing tasks during the hours you're supposed to be off, and so that the personal never bleeds into the professional. It's a lofty pursuit made even more difficult by the modern age's state of constant connectivity—not to mention the current situation still forcing plenty to work from our homes. If only there was a way to separate our jobs from our social lives that was as simple as, say, a routine brain surgery that's over in a matter of minutes. Severance, the brilliant thriller series on Apple TV+ created by Dan Erickson and directed in part by Ben Stiller, offers just such a solution, its office drones undergoing a procedure that permanently blocks their office lives from their home lives. Of course, nothing is so simple.
Mark (Adam Scott) is employed at Lumon Industries, a company so mysterious its own workers aren't allowed to know what it does. They are obligated to undergo "severance," a one-time procedure that totally wipes their memories of anything they do while in the office (located down in the basement of the building, naturally). What they're not told is that, in order to wall off one section of their memories from another, severance basically manifests an entirely new personality that lives, trapped, inside their heads, existing only within their office floor. Because they've been "severed," their original out-of-office selves have no idea.
The trouble begins when a new employee, Helly (Britt Lower), realizes immediately upon entering the office that she wants to get outta there. But, no matter what she tries, her original self (referred to as her "outie") won't allow her to quit. Stuck in the windowless office in the middle of a maze of fluorescent-lit corridors with only her coworkers—rumpled people-pleaser Mark, conspiracy theorist Dylan (Zach Cherry), pious Lumon scripture-quoting Irving (John Turturro), and their terrifying manager Milchick (Tramell Tillman)—for company, Helly plots her escapes daily, taking more and more drastic measures to try to tell her other self that her "innie" is miserable. Meanwhile, Mark is on his own quest to unveil the secrets of Lumon, matching wits with his severe and sinister boss Ms. Cobell (Patricia Arquette), and unknowingly dragging his reluctant innie into the fray.
Aside from the immediately fascinating plot, Severance has managed to build an entire world inside an office, constructing a mappa mundi of white-tiled halls, carpeted cubicles, and a delightfully analog tech aesthetic that sets it somewhere between Office Space and Being John Malkovich. The tone is a hideous and hilarious parody of office life and its bizarre intricacies; employees are, intellectually, little more than children forced to bandy about strange corporate Newspeak. Their work at Lumon involves cleaning up data that appears in nonsensical number matrices, good work is rewarded with melon bars and "music-dance experiences," and naughty rule-breaking employees are sent to the dungeon-like "break room."
The real joy (and horror) of Severance is in its constantly expanding mythos, each episode offering a new puzzle piece, these new bits of knowledge perfectly doled out, that allows for a broader understanding of the whole. The questions the series invents out of thin air invite its audience to knot themselves in Escher stairs of complexity: What do we owe to ourselves if ourselves are not really ourselves? What price do you put on freedom if it erases the existence of another? If you separate one aspect of yourself from another, do you create new life? Severance creates a fresh hell out of corporate mundanity that leads to a genuinely nail-biting final few episodes that deftly set up the possibility for more. And you'll want more immediately.