'Severance' review: Brilliant series deconstructs corporate culture with 'Twilight Zone' twist
Courtesy of Apple TV+
Few things, television wise, have gotten me as excited as Apple TV+’s latest slam dunk “Severance,” which is basically a hybrid of “Office Space” meets “The Twilight Zone.” From the spectacular opening title sequence to a jaw dropping finale that leaves you hungry for more, everything about “Severance” instantly gels. The premise is original and eerily relatable in that unrelenting fear or anxiety we’ve had about going into the office (especially in the last two years). In the opening scene, we see Adam Scott’s Mark Scout sobbing outside of Lumon Industries, the shady organization he works for, eventually pulling himself together enough to get through the front door and exchange a brief hello with the security guard before descending into an elevator that’ll take him to a basement office.
Once inside the elevator we witness as though someone flipped a switch and suddenly Mark Scout is now Mark S, a lowly cubicle worker for Lumon with no recollection of the outside world or Mark Scout. A few years prior, after an unforeseen tragedy, Mark agreed to be “Severed” which amounts to the ultimate separation of work and personal life. Mark Scout is the “outie” to Mark S’ “innie” and the two are different entities who never coalesce or have any idea about their livelihoods. There’s something appealing about showing up to work and not having to stress about an 8-hour day. You go in and then, poof, you're already in the car driving home.
All of Mark’s co-workers have undergone the same procedure, but “Severance” kicks into gear with the arrival of a new employee, Helly (an amazing Britt Lower) who we meet on her first day with no memory of how she got there. It’s a blast trying to unpack this world creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller have cooked-up: an expansive sci-fi premise surrounding duality and the lengths we go to please our corporate overlords who literally see us as worker bee’s. Over the course of nine episodes (let us pray there’s more) the twists and turns amass in crazy, sometimes wild, succession.
The moral and ethical dilemma of the “innie” and “outie” debate is quite striking considering one person’s choice affects themselves, but also not really? For all the “outie” knows, they’re filing paperwork in a basement whereas they could be committing crimes and be none the wiser. Plus the idea of “severance” (if it were actually real) would be enticing to employers looking to cut out personal distractions and increase productivity. It’s not obvious to say Lumon clearly has ulterior motives and should be immediately pegged as the villain: it’s run with a persnickety, off putting smile by Mark’s supervisor Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) and her trusty, soulless sidekick Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman - who is near perfect), the latter responsible for boosting office morale with oddball incentives like “waffle parties” and “five-minute disco jams.” Each time Mr. Milchick enters the room, it’s best to keep your guard up because something sinister is always hidden underneath.
As for the rest of cast, everyone is aces starting with Scott playing the series’ beating heart, seamlessly stepping between both roles in a career highlight performance: likewise for Lower who shows the most spunk playing the “innie” whose been given the short end of the leash by her “outie.” John Turturro and Zach Cherry are immaculate playing co-workers Irvin and Dylan, two by-the-books Lumon loyalists who thrive on procedure and reward. The dynamic shared among these four takes this series to another dimension. They laugh, work, and, like everyone watching at home, make new discoveries together. You’ll root for them each step of the way as the secrets within Lumon’s walls slowly unravel at their fingertips.
Stiller directed six episodes of “Severance” and though the filmmaker dabbled with more serious fare with “Escape at Dannemora,” his approach to comedy (think “Zoolander” or “Tropic Thunder”) mixed with the cerebral concept of the show creates an interesting blend of deadpan comedy and sharp tension. It’s one of his more philosophical projects that hits deeper and draws inspiration from numerous visionaries including Chris Carter of “The X Files.” Obviously, the less you know heading in the better, but “Severance” is the real deal, a high concept television show unafraid of taking bold swings that pays off and keeps you on the hook for more. My only complaint is that I never wanted it to end.
SEVERANCE debuts its first two episodes on Apple TV+ Friday, February 18th with subsequent episodes dropping weekly.