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Severance: Grounded, Restrained Science Fiction
Apple TV+ outdoes itself.
Apple TV+ is producing some of the best new shows that aren’t based on comic books. So what’s the best of those best? It’s not Ted Lasso (though that is an excellent show).
No, so far, I’d give the top prize to Severance, a science fiction series created by Dan Erickson that debuted early this year.
This is grounded, restrained science fiction. No distant future or spaceships or aliens, as much fun as all of that can be. Severance takes our world and sends it on a tangent by adding a single piece of revolutionary, and controversial, technology.
Lumon Industries has developed a way to psychologically separate employees’ personal and work lives. Employees who undergo the “severance” program have no memories of their personal lives when they’re at work, and no memories of what they did at work all day after they clock out and leave the office.
It’s a fascinating premise that springs from a simple wish-fulfillment fantasy. Wouldn’t it be nice to fast-forward through the workday and focus on the parts of life we most enjoy?
But the writers of Severance think all the way through that fantasy, and they show us how horrifying it might actually be in practice.
The version of employee who exists at work is essentially trapped at work. They go into the elevator at the end of the day, and then they’re immediately coming right back down that same elevator to start another day on the job. There’s no escape, and there’s not even any sunlight, as the severed employees are also severed from the wider world. Their only light is of the corporate, fluorescent variety.
They know no one except their colleagues and supervisors. They know no books except the employee handbook. And they know no religion or philosophy other than the stated vision of the company’s founder, who’s presented to them as quasi-religious figure.
On the flip side, the show also explores why someone might want to undergo such a radical procedure. For some, skipping past the workday might be the main appeal, but others may welcome a total escape from whatever personal problems they’re struggling with. For eight hours, those problems cease to exist, as far as the employee is aware.
In Severance, we meet both sides of only one employee, Mark (Adam Scott), whose wife recently died. By night, he struggles to move on and drinks himself into oblivion. By day, he works as the newly appointed head of the macrodata refinement team and tries to help a newly severed employee adjust to these strange working conditions.
The new employee, Helly (Britt Lower), allows us to see just how twisted the whole process is. In the pilot, we meet her as she’s waking up on a conference room table, without any memory of who she is or how she got there or why she’s there. Like any sensible person, she’s reluctant to trust what the company is telling her, and she goes to great lengths to try to escape. From her perspective, she’s been dropped into hell—a workday that never ends.
The writers clearly have a lot to say about modern corporate culture, but instead of flat-out saying it, they’ve developed an original fictional world that examines the nature and effects of a work/life imbalance. The scripts give the impression that they’re inspired by experience, but not that the writers are trying to stick it to any particular employers. I have no idea whether the writers lean toward pro-capitalism or anti-capitalism, just that corporate culture is something that’s on their minds. All of this is exactly how it should be.
The nine-episode season starts off slowly, but it builds momentum as it goes, culminating in a masterful season finale. The mysteries are only just beginning to unfold: What does Lumon actually do? What exactly is “macrodata refinement” other than fancy jargon? Why does the company minimize contact between departments? And what are those other departments doing?
Understandably, the puzzle-box aspect may put off viewers who were burned by other shows with long-simmering mysteries. Severance might be able to avoid an unsatisfying conclusion if it limits itself to three or four seasons and continues to demonstrate excellent attention to detail.
I don’t know what the plan is, of course. All I know is that the second season can’t come soon enough.
While Severance is excellent adult fare, here’s a quick recommendation for the whole family:
And back to adult fare … here’s a look at a Lenin biography:
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