Regularly scheduled programming: ‘Severance’ is a workplace show you won’t want to forget

A group of people hold on to each other looking off to the distance.
“Severance” follows employees at the fictional company Lumon, where employees’ memories are “severed” between their work selves and home selves. (Courtesy: Apple TV+)

Without any other context, the idea of a TV show directed by Ben Stiller, set in a workplace starring Adam Scott, seems like something that has been done before. The TV landscape is no stranger to a workplace show, from comedies like “The Office” to procedurals like “Law & Order.” “Severance” on Apple TV+, however, is incredibly unique, compelling and a must-watch, revitalizing the genre. 

“Severance” stars Scott as Mark Scout, an employee in the MacroData Refinement department at Lumon, a mysterious company that allows some employees to be “severed.” The severance procedure splits memories in half — when the employee is at work as their “innie” self, they have no memories of their life outside of work, and when at home as their “outie” self, they have no memories of being at Lumon. Mark has gone his whole career at Lumon keeping his head down, believing it’s for his own good, until the appearance of the mysterious new Helly R. (Britt Lower) who starts to ask questions. 

As I started the show, I mainly believed the severance procedure was done to create a complete work-life balance. If the employees have no memories of their personal lives, there is nothing to distract them from their work. However, as I watched more, the more sinister reasons for the split began to be revealed. Mark and his coworkers have no idea what their work is actually doing, or what Lumon as a company even does. The severance procedure allows them to leave work unable to share any company secrets to the outside world. 

When I first heard of “Severance,” I thought I knew what the show would be. Based solely on the premise, I assumed that the primary goal of the show would be to make a critical statement about capitalist work structures. However, while that is one of the underlying messages of the show, there is so much more at work in the incredibly complex storylines. 

I would describe the show as a “dark comedy,” but I also agree with the label of psychological thriller/science fiction that it has been given. The overall tone is dark and dramatic, with chilling shots and episode ending cliffhangers. However, one-liners from fellow MacroData Refinement employee Dylan (Zach Cherry) add comedic relief in moments of tension. 

Because of how “Severance” is structured, with the “innie” and “outie” selves, it requires incredible performances from its actors. The cast is able to intricately show the nuanced differences between the “innie,” who can be from a few hours to a few years old, and the “outie,” a fully formed person, in their performances. The change in expression in each character as they ride the elevator up to Lumon and shift between their innie and outie is chilling. Outside of the main employees, “Severance” has riveting performances from Patricia Arquette as Harmony Cobel, Mark’s boss, and Tramell Tillman as Mr. Milchik, his supervisor. 

In recent years, actors who got their start in comedy are turning to dramatic roles, from Bill Hader in “Barry” to Jason Bateman in “Ozark.” Adam Scott is the latest addition to this trend, as “Severance” is a turn toward the dramatic. Even though the tone is different, at its core “Severance” is a workplace show, something very familiar for Scott’s career. Underneath the serious acting required for the role is Ben Wyatt from “Parks and Recreation” and Henry from “Party Down.” The role is exciting and unique for Scott, and I can’t wait for the future of his character. 

The production and set design on “Severance” is also a crucial part of the show. Lumon is located in a bare, almost empty office building, with technology that makes the show seem as though it takes place in the 1990s or early 2000s. In an interview with Vulture, production designer Jeremy Hindle described one of the themes for the set as a “haunted playground.” The sparse yet intricate set designs add to the unsettling nature of the scenes at Lumon, and the show overall. 

The eerie tone of “Severance” also allows it to cross over into the bizarre. Throughout the show, the characters mention various tier incentives they are given for reaching a certain milestone or hitting a quota. The incentives include a symbolic finger trap, a drawing of themselves and a waffle party. During one memorable scene in the show, the characters engage in a Music Dance Experience, where Helly R. can pick from a list of generic songs such as “Defiant Jazz,” and the employees are allowed to dance for a few minutes before getting back to work. These additions add to the detailed storytelling, while also drawing a comparison to real life work culture. 

“Severance” is the kind of show that sticks with you. At the end of each episode, I found myself almost screaming at my TV because of the shocking and often cliffhanger endings. It has a completely unique tone and concept, unlike anything else I’ve seen. The season finale aired last Friday, and it has been renewed for a second season, which I am especially excited for. Because of the incredible storytelling in the show, there are so many questions left to answer, in a way that feels compelling, rather than because of lazy storytelling. 

“Severance” is one of the most captivating shows on TV right now, and the entire first season is available to stream on Apple TV+. Since the season finale, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the season and what will happen in the future, and I’ve thought about rewatching all over again. “Severance” is definitely a show you don’t want to forget. 

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She is anxiously awaiting the return of “Barry” and “Better Call Saul,” and she just started “Criminal Minds.”

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