Thursday, February 17, 2022

Severance, on Apple TV+

When watching this workplace series, you have to wonder how the company in question could pivot to work-from-home during the pandemic. Lumon Industries is not merely dysfunctional in a Dunder Mifflin-The Office kind of way. There is something rather ominous going on there, but it is hard for employees to act on their suspicions because they have been “severed.” During office hours, severed employees only remember their work lives, whereas at home, they have no recollection of the office. Things get interesting for one drone when both his inside and outside selves start asking questions in creator Dan Erickson’s Severance, which premieres tomorrow on Apple TV+.

It is hard to tell what “Mark S” (severed workers do not even know their last names) does with his three colleagues in the Macro Data Refinement (MDR) department. Frankly, they do not even know themselves. It involves old clunky mid-1980s looking computers, but their daily toil makes little sense. Nevertheless, he and veterans Dylan and Irving, have largely resigned themselves to it. On the other hand, Helly, the new arrival, is having none of it. She is determined to resign, but her “outie” refuses all her requests. Of course, direct communication between selves is strictly forbidden and enforced by high tech surveillance and detection techniques.

Poor Mark had tragic reasons for agreeing to the severance procedure, but the backstories for the rest of his team will remain unknown for most of the show. However, we soon learn someone from Lumon is keeping eyes on the “outie” Mark. It is easy to see how Erickson and directors Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle could mine this premise for paranoia, but they have some wildly sinister twists up their sleeves.

Season one consists of nine episodes, which might sound a bit on the long side, but the time is well spent in early installments carefully establishing the rules of severed work and the creepy idiosyncrasies of the Lumon headquarters.
Severance was shot on location at the old Aero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs Holmdel building, which is a perfect retro-dystopian setting. Frankly, the art and design work that went into the Lumon world are amazing. Theodore Shapiro’s eerie minimalist score nicely suits the sterile environment and enhances the mysterious vibe (plus there some deliciously funky music in the episode titled “Defiant Jazz,” but it would be too complicated to explain why it is there).

Yet, Adam Scott is probably the key to
Severance, because he does the best work we’ve seen from him as Mark (obviously both of them). It is a sensitive performance that distinguishes between innie and outie, but also shows us how he really is the same person, in and out. If that does not convince you, then keep in mind both Christopher Walken and John Turturro have substantial supporting roles, often appearing together, as severed workers—and they are compulsively watchable, like you would expect.

Zach Cherry probably gets the lion share of
Severance’s laughs as Mark’s obnoxious MDR colleague Dylan, while Tramell Tillman could be villain of the year playing Milchick, a loyal non-severed company man. Britt Lower also has her share of extreme office drama that she plays to the hilt as Helly, while Dichen Lachman delivers some intriguing quiet scenes as Lumon’s “wellness” manager, Ms. Casey.

Granted, we have seen many fictional evil corporations on-screen before, but Erickson devised some legitimately original wrinkles. It is unquestionably a withering depiction of corporate employment, but the depiction of Lumon takes on bizarre cult-like dimensions. The writing is consistently smart, making the series dashed addictive. Very highly recommended for fans of light science fiction and conspiracy thrillers,
Severance starts streaming tomorrow (2/18) on Apple TV+.