In the engrossing new Apple TV+ thriller Severance, Adam Scott plays Mark, a man who literally has no life outside of work — well, half the time, anyway.
Let me explain. The show takes place in a world where corporate employees can volunteer for a “severance” procedure that completely separates their memories of their time at the office from their memories of everything else. So there are essentially two Marks: the “innie,” who only exists in and around the sub-basement cubicle where he does some inscrutable kind of data entry, and the “outie,” who has no clue what his body does down there for eight hours a day. As far as innie Mark is concerned, he never gets to go anywhere, see anyone but his colleagues, know anything about his personal life, sleep, or get any kind of break. He is always working, all day and every day of the strange half-life his outie chose for him.
Created by Dan Erickson and primarily directed by Ben Stiller, the show literalizes the struggle for work-life balance in a way that feels equal parts Charlie Kaufman-esque sci-fi whimsy, paranoid Seventies thriller, and end-stage capitalism satire(*). Severance gradually reveals why the outie versions of Mark and his office-mates — pretentious Irving (John Turturro), competitive Dylan (Zach Cherry), and frustrated newcomer Helly (Britt Lower) — would subject a part of their identities to such a horrific fate. But anyone who has devoted too many hours to a job while enduring platitudes about how the company is like a family may soon find themselves relating to the trapped innies.
(*) There are also hints of the first season of Amazon’s own genre mash-up Homecoming, plus Joss Whedon’s short-lived Fox drama Dollhouse — complete with the latter show’s Dichen Lachman playing a vivid supporting role here as a company wellness counselor.
Though Mark is the main character in both worlds, Erickson and Stiller smartly use Helly as our point-of-view figure for the work scenes. She wakes up lying on top of a conference room table with no memory of who she is or how she got there, and spends much of the first episode convinced — not unfairly — that she is part of something nefarious. In one scene, she asks if she’s just livestock, grown to be someone else’s food. Later, she wonders if she has died and this bright, antiseptic, decidedly retro office space is really hell. Mark gently insists that it’s not. But within a few episodes, it becomes clear that Helly is onto something on a metaphorical level, and not just because older coworkers like Irving, the quirky Burt (Christopher Walken), and domineering boss Harmony (Patricia Arquette) treat the company itself as their religion. Irving studies the company manual like it’s the Bible, while Harmony — who, along with perma-smiling henchman Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman), has not undergone severance and always knows who and what she is — refers to the company’s founder as if he were the messiah.
Stiller has become an even more assured and visually inventive filmmaker than he was on 2018’s Escape From Dannemora(*). Here he captures both the strangeness of the concept and its emotional implications. His camera makes the impressively weird production design seem even more unnerving, and he gets fascinating, nuanced performances from familiar actors like Scott (leaning hard into his everyman charm, with strong results) and Turturro, as well as less heralded ones like Lower and Tillman. Stiller’s facility with tone, and the sheer oddity of innie life, makes the early chapters compelling even though very little happens at first.
(*) Severance is now the third collaboration between Arquette and Stiller, after he directed her in Dannemora and played her husband way back when in 1996’s Flirting With Disaster. It’s been a fruitful partnership.
The real-world passages are bumpier near the start of the season. Outie Mark is such a glum sad sack that nonwork scenes tend to drag even after he gets involved with people who claim to have found a way to undo the severance process. Eventually, though, what we see of Mark and others at home helps inform what’s happening to their work selves, in ways that are at times shocking, at others darkly funny. Outie Mark, for instance, has little patience for his brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus), a pretentious self-help author. But when a copy of Ricken’s newest book makes its way down into the office, innie Mark — who has no pop-cultural memories of any kind — finds it so profound, he begins memorizing passages of it.
The innie scenes, though, are so surprising and poignant that you, unlike Helly, may be giddy at the chance to spend tons of time down in the basement office. It’s not just that Severance is clever in the ways it shines a fun-house mirror on inadequate workplace incentives, like when Dylan boasts of all the erasers and finger traps he’s earned for his performance, or Helly is rewarded in one episode with a five-minute “Musical Dance Experience” by an overly enthusiastic (and extremely soulful) Mr. Milchick. It’s that the series continually finds both nightmarish new depths and unexpectedly sweet highs within this bizarre conceit. Irving and a colleague in another department develop romantic feelings for one another, but what can they do about it when the versions who are in love never get to do anything but work? (The incredibly brief moments they are able to steal away just to talk, or to brush hands, are aching with emotion.) Oh, and a later episode offers everyone the gift of Christopher Walken saying the phrase “baby goats.”
The innies are forbidden from communicating anything to their outies, but occasionally the company allows word to travel in the opposite direction. When one innie stirs up trouble in search of better working conditions, their indignant outie records a video message laying things out bluntly: “I am a person. You are not.” It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the innie scenes feel far livelier and more engaging than the outie ones, as if Severance is rebutting this very argument by showing just how human the innies are, while their outies have coldly given up a part of themselves in greater service to their work.
The whole thing builds in very satisfying ways, up through a season finale that is so tense, I may have forgotten to breathe a few times. That concluding hour is far more pleasurable than anything the innies get to experience as they complete tasks they don’t fully understand, in service of a world and lives they’re never allowed to visit.
The first two episodes of Severance premiere Feb. 18 on Apple TV+, with additional installments releasing weekly. I’ve seen all nine episodes.