Imagine going to work without any of the emotional burdens from your personal life. Then, imagine going home from work without any of the work stress brought upon by your job. Is this good? Is this bad? Would you undergo the procedure called Severance?
This original AppleTV+ series is the brainchild of Ben Stiller. Yes, that very same Ben Stiller who starred in such movies as Zoolander, Night at the Museum, and There’s Something About Mary. He has also served as both producer and director for other movies like Tropic Thunder and The Cable Guy. Severance came to the screen through his production company and Stiller has also directed the first two episodes that I can only describe as creepily atmospheric.
There is a starkness to this series that adds to the sense of unease this series brings. Much of the location shooting was done in New Jersey and the site for the Lumon Industries Building (formerly the Bell Labs) has a look that is less than welcoming. Even the subdivision a couple of the characters live in looks charming but feels desolate. Then there are the sterile and maze-like interiors where those who have undergone the severance procedure work. Large rooms with few work desks add to the stylized mystery of what these workers are doing. Where such scenes failed in other projects like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, here it is quite successful by immediately alerting the viewer that there is something seriously wrong going on.
The cast for Severance is made up of some very strong actors, most notably Adam Scott as Mark (the department leader of the small team of employees who are “severed”), Patricia Arquette as Mark’s “outie” (the term used for the non-working personality) Mrs. Selvig as well as Mark’s “insie” (the term used for the working personality) Supervisor Harmony Cobel, John Turturro as the procedure loving and possibly power-hungry Irv, and Christopher Walken as the mysterious Burt. From this cast alone I would have jumped at the opportunity to see this series, especially with the credentials that both Arquette and Walken bring. What I found surprising is what Scott brought to his role as Mark, having to essentially play two different personalities of the same person. Arquette is also quite mysterious as her character continues to unfold throughout the first three episodes leading the viewer to second guess her true nature, especially during the first two episodes.
This series manages to hit the ground running with its mystery surrounding what these severed employees are doing. When we see them at their job we have to wonder why they are engaged in what appears to be a rather mundane task. It also doesn’t take long for the series to introduce a former employee who is undergoing reintegration and through him, “outie” Mark is now forced to start asking questions about what his “insie” self has been doing. Unfortunately, virtually nothing from the outside world, except for the clothes you wear, is allowed inside the workplace making any form of communication between our outside and inside selves impossible. This suggests that “outie” Mark may have to take on the task of figuring out what Lumon Industries is up to, while his “insie” self is happily working at his job and determined to be a good department leader.
I had seen trailers for this series and found the concept interesting enough to pick it up, but within minutes I found the premise of a workplace giving some of their work staff bifurcated memories as highly provocative. One of the newer employees in Mark’s team comments on remembering starting to leave at the end of her shift only to suddenly find herself coming back to work. There is also Mark who lost his wife and has been grieving, yet comes to work having no memory of ever having been married. This is science fiction at its finest when it can pose controversial questions of this nature. Its production style also gives it that creep factor making it 1 part sci-fi, 1 part psychological thriller, 1 part horror, and 2 parts mind-f*ck. Severance also shows that you don’t need to have highly expensive production values to tell highly compelling stories. The inexpensive minimalism works perfectly here.
Stiller was recently interviewed where he said that this series would have no red herrings and that all of the questions this first season of Severance raises will be wrapped up. There is no way to guess where the story is going to go for this 9-episode first season (apparently it has been renewed for a second season), but I was immediately invested from the beginning. After only three episodes Severance is not only a series I intend to continue watching, but I think it’s one of the smartest science fiction shows to come along in a very long time.