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The concept of work/life balance is pushed to absurd lengths in this stylized thriller set in the near future. It centers on the employees of Lumon, a shadowy company that requires every new hire to undergo a process called “severance.” Once the operation is complete, they cannot access their memories of their personal lives while at work and, conversely, forget their workday completely when they aren’t clocked in.
Ben Stiller serves as executive producer and directed several episodes as well. Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, and John Turturro play the main team of cubicle dwellers. Their shadowy supervisors include Tramell Tillman, Patricia Arquette, and Dichen Lachman. Christopher Walken also shows up to add to the off-kilter atmosphere inside the Lumon office space, as only he can.
If you’re looking for something a little different and a little dark, something that will give you plenty to think and talk about the next day or years from now, you might want to give Severance a chance. The series follows in the tradition of great speculative fiction, taking an aspect of society simmering just under the surface—in this case the dehumanizing tendencies of capitalism—and blowing it up into stark terms that force us to confront its drastic implications.
Anyone who’s ever worked for a large corporation, or even a small one, has likely suspected that their overlords would prefer mindless automatons without a life outside of work to their human work force. As if to prove that theory, Severance gives us the Lumon company, which seems set on stripping down its employees until nothing but their work ethic remains. Exactly what Lumon is up to lies locked inside the tantalizing mystery box of the show, and each episode adds to the intrigue. The story appeals to our humanity even as it denies the characters theirs.
Adam Scott leads a terrific cast who understand the show’s heightened reality without taking it too far towards the fantastical or extreme. Scott in particular gives a subtle but effective performance as Mark. You can immediately see the differences between his two personas as he transforms in the elevator down to the “severed” floor. At home, Mark is moody, sarcastic, and haunted by a past tragedy. We learn that grief is the main reason he chose to forget his personal life for eight hours a day (the first time we see him, he’s sobbing in his car in the parking lot before heading into work). On the job, Mark is a pale mirror reflection of his outside self, just a regular guy doing his job, trying to get through the day.
Besides the fascinating premise and moving performances, one of the first things you notice about the series is the production design. Inside the Lumon offices it’s all drab colors, Brutalist architecture, endless winding corridors, outdated technology, and lots of straight lines. So many lines. Once you notice them, you can’t stop seeing it. The metaphors is right there in front of you the whole time: separation, division, compartmentalization. All tidy and parallel. Ben Stiller might be more well known as an actor, but he shows off his keen director’s eye here to great effect.
The world outside the office is only slightly more colorful (we get the occasional pop of red amidst the blues and browns), but just as sparse, and no less cold and depressing. Which makes sense, because if the outside world were so great why would anyone want to forget it? The thing is, though, there is no real escape. What the severance procedure effectively does is rip an individual into two separate identities. The severed employees have an “outie” and an “innie,” each forced to live half life forever. Or so it seems. Identity is an important part of what the show is all about. The first words spoken in the series are literally, “Who are you?”
There’s a moment in the second episode when Helly (Lower), a new hire in the vaguely titled Microdata Refinement department, finally understands the meaning of the seemingly random numbers she’s been staring at for days. Some of them suddenly seem “scary.” That’s a pretty good analogy for what it feels like watching Severance. You may not completely get it at first, but keep watching eventually you’ll see the scary parts for what they are.
Severance is unlike any other show on TV right now. It builds slowly, drawing you in with stylish minutiae, but then intensifies, goes deeper, and becomes more paranoia-inducing with each successive episode.
Independent thinkers, fans of independent films, or anyone with an open mind who likes to dig into complicated stuff. This is one of those shows you will want to talk about with someone afterwards.