SEVERANCE (Dan Erickson). First two episodes available Friday (February 18) on Apple TV+, with new episodes weekly through April 8. Rating: NNNN
Imagine clocking in at the office and then immediately being done with your day, ready to go home. Sounds great, right? Who wouldn’t want that?
That’s the seductive, only vaguely sinister premise of Severance, a new series premiering on Apple TV this week. If you’ve been looking for a bleak workplace comedy that’s also a creepy, paranoid thriller with just a little streak of body horror, then you should definitely check out this ingenious puzzle box of a show from writer/creator Dan Erickson and executive producer Ben Stiller. (Stiller also directed the first three and last three episodes, with Aoife McArdle helming the three in the middle.)
Technically, Severance is science fiction, starring Adam Scott (Parks And Recreation) and Britt Lower (Man Seeking Woman) as Mark and Helly, employees of Lumon Industries, which has devised a procedure to separate people’s work and personal lives. It’s entirely voluntary and, we’re told, irreversible, leaving the “innie” with no memories of their “outie” life, and vice versa.
Mark’s innie has been there for two years, taking the job shortly after the death of his wife; we meet Helly’s on her first day, where she’s shocked – and then horrified – to discover that shifts of “macrodata refinement” in an underground office will constitute the entirety of her existence.
It’s an intriguing take on work-life balance, and one that doesn’t shy away from the cruelty inherent in the concept: if one’s work self knows literally nothing else and has no choice in the matter, isn’t that a life sentence at best, and torture at worst? And when no one on the outside can ever know what happens at the office, how does that affect corporate culture?
Severance strikes a jittery tone of suppressed panic from its very first scenes, each deadpan corporate interaction hinting at something malevolent underneath. It also becomes clear, over the course of this first season, that the world in which these characters live is not entirely rational.
Not only does Lumon’s corporate mythology of exalted founders whose righteous struggles guarantee the good of all sound remarkably like the stuff of a death cult, but even people who don’t work for the company are a little off; Mark’s brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus, of Patriot and Werewolves Within) is a would-be life coach whose self-published books are filled with incoherent balms to the gullible soul.
Each episode brings us a few steps closer to understanding the scope of the story, answering some questions and asking new ones. Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Christopher Walken and Russian Doll’s Yul Vasquez – each one a versatile, mercurial presence – turn up in key roles, while Scott’s everybro vibe and Lower’s rebellious energy spark off each other in interesting ways. And as one of Mark and Helly’s co-workers, Zach Cherry does a remarkable job of carrying the entire moral weight of the show without ever letting on that he’s doing it.
Lock yourself in with this one. It’s got something. And if Apple TV cancels Severance after one season, we riot.