‘Severance’ turns workplace drama into a gripping dystopian thriller

The promotional poster for "Severance" (2022–) is pictured. Courtesy IMDb

When you have a busy schedule, it can feel impossible to find the right balance between work and life. How do you meet all your deadlines and get everything done while still having time for friends, family and social activities? In “Severance” (2022–), a new drama series that premiered on Apple TV+ this February, the dilemma of ‘work-life balance’ is explored with a dark, dystopian twist.

Produced and directed by Ben Stiller, “Severance” tells the story of Lumon Industries, a powerful biotech corporation that develops a procedure known as ‘severance,’ which allows its employees to separate their work memories from their nonwork memories. By doing this, they effectively create two different versions of themselves: one that only exists in the outside world and one that only exists in the workplace. The story is told from the perspective of Mark Scout, a severed worker played by “Parks and Recreation” (2009–15) actor Adam Scott. Inside Lumon, viewers are introduced to Mark’s co-workers Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro) and new hire Helly (Britt Lower), as well as his supervisor Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman), his boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) and wellness counselor Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman). Throughout the season, a dark conspiracy within Lumon is revealed as both versions of Mark begin to learn more about the company and its true intentions.

Mark and his co-workers work in the macrodata refinement department, where their job is to sort coded numbers into digital bins on their computers, although none of them know why they’re doing this. The “severed floor” of Lumon is oddly generic, with drab windowless walls and long winding hallways, and interactions between workers and their superiors are strangely mechanical, with supervisors offering employees meaningless rewards for completing tasks. Cobel and other higher-ups at Lumon take on an almost cult-like quality, constantly singing the praises of the company’s founder, Kier Eagan (Marc Geller). For the work versions of Mark and his co-workers, their only memories are of the bleak Lumon offices, and they have no knowledge of their lives in the outside world. Although they all chose to undergo the severance procedure, it quickly becomes clear that once they start working for Lumon, it’s nearly impossible to leave. 

The series’ concept is incredibly smart and original, blending elements of drama, science fiction and dystopia to tell an engaging story. Known mostly for his comedic roles, Scott gives an impressive performance as Mark Scout, who underwent the severance process to escape the grief of losing his recently deceased wife. Cherry and Turturro bring some humor to the series as co-workers Dylan and Irving, and Tillman and Arquette stand out with their performances as creepily friendly Lumon managers Milchick and Cobel. 

The series is well-written throughout, introducing many different characters and plotlines without overwhelming viewers and effortlessly jumping back and forth between Lumon and the outside world. “Severance” quickly takes on a tense, dystopian tone, which is elevated by Stiller’s — and his fellow directors’ — masterful direction, along with impressive cinematography, minimalist set design and a striking musical score. The technical elements of the series blend together seamlessly to disconcert viewers and make them constantly wonder what’s coming next. The show’s narrative has no shortage of unexpected twists and turns, and the sense of mystery is heightened by the actors’ performances, both inside and outside of Lumon. Mark in the outside world has no idea what’s going on inside Lumon (and vice versa), so the viewers are going on a journey with the characters to uncover the company’s secrets. 

The season ends with a cliffhanger that will leave you on the edge of your seat — luckily, the series has already been renewed for a second season. Although the series takes place in a world different from our own, it’s in many ways a reflection of modern life; Lumon Industries in “Severance” is not a far cry from the big tech companies that mistreat their employees and make deals behind closed doors. Additionally, the series forces viewers to ponder big philosophical questions about identity and the power of memory: Would ‘severing’ your memories allow you to live a more productive and stress-free life, or would it take away the one thing that makes you you? “Severance” is inspired by countless dystopian stories that came before it, but it tells a darkly funny, mysterious story like no other that will draw you in and keep your attention until the very end.


Summary

“Severance” is a gripping dystopian workplace drama with real-world implications, elevated by a fascinating story, impressive visuals and strong performances from Adam Scott and his fellow cast members.

4.5 stars
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