Review: ‘Severance’ savagely satires the idea of work-life balance

Adam Scott severance
Photo via AppleTV+

Created by Dan Erikson, directed in part by Ben Stiller, and featuring an A-list ensemble, Severance is the latest offering from Apple TV Plus. Taking its inspiration from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with a dash of George Orwell’s 1984 thrown in, Severance is all about work-life balance. In an age where people struggle to juggle their personal and professional personas, this savage piece of satire offers up a possible solution.

Adam Scott plays Mark S., an office worker who specializes in macro data refinement. John Turturro’s Irving and Zak Cherry’s Dylan are on his team, sitting at their computers each weekday to clean screens of information. There are numerous handbooks, but no actual training, as these old hands go on intuition rather than something traceable. Meanwhile, their immediate boss — Milchick, played by Tramell Tillman — watches and encourages but does little else.   

Within an office space defined by simple geometry, clean-cut partition walls, and chunky retro terminals, Lumon operates in total silence. Departments are only accessible by lift, while vending machines get stocked with branded company substitutes. Personalities are discouraged, personal lives are off limits, and productivity remains paramount. To bolster morale, work-based bonuses include individual caricatures, fabricated pencil erasers, and waffle parties. There is one more thing; every single person there has been severed.

That is where this show gets visceral, as Severance explores the surgical possibilities of a genuine work-life balance. In so doing, it addresses the question everyone has asked themselves at least once, before following that premise to its logical conclusion. Ideas of two separate lives existing in one body get broken down, while the monotony of endless repetition with no respite delves into darker psychological areas.

Britt Lower explores that idea most obviously as Helly, a new recruit within macro data refinement who replaces Mark’s oldest friend. Welcomed in by Irving and Dylan, it becomes clear early on that Helly might not be suited to this type of work. She perpetually questions the choices that were made without her consent, then systematically challenges the authority of Patricia Arquette’s Peggy.

Severance is one part office drama and two parts character study, with dashes of psychological thriller thrown in. As a premise, it takes the idea of workplace politics and chops them into chunks, before turning that into a frappe. That this level of psychological malice can be inflicted in air-conditioned serenity, whilst no one bats an eyelid, is savagely entertaining. Emotional responses are compartmentalized, conscious choices are quashed, and at least one corpse gets humiliated.

Composer Theodore Shapiro, who worked with Stiller on Tropic Thunder and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, also adds another element to this show through his off-kilter compositions. Eerie piano pieces and incidental musical choices heighten the sense of claustrophobia whilst sucking any warmth from the room.

Existence in this corporate universe is devoid of feeling, where subsidized housing means that even those on the outside are reliant upon Lumon. Pre-fabricated housing estates sit in picturesque isolation, whilst work colleagues exist in parallel, yet remain — a construct that subtlety tips its hat to the duplicitous behavior people choose to exhibit on a daily basis.

As this series progresses and Mark S. disappears deeper down the rabbit hole, Severance also deviates into a discussion around personal privacy. As outside forces begin manipulating him at work and elsewhere, his curiosity takes events in a different direction. Helly also continues to suffer, by intentionally disrupting the system and taking things up a notch in terms of her agenda. However, there are moments of genuine connection that help to alleviate the perpetual darkness from within. These come most notably from the friendship between Irving and Christopher Walken’s Burt.

Under the guidance of these established veterans, Severance is injected with some much-needed pathos, as both Turturro and Walken work their magic. Exchanges over artwork and the anticipation of a new corporate product, giving these men something different to spark their curiosity after decades of darkness. With one approaching 65 while the other closes in on his eighth decade, it is proof that in some cases less is more — a maxim which could just as easily explain the appeal of this show to an audience in search of answers.  

Review: 'Severance' savagely satires the idea of work-life balance

In 'Severance,' Adam Scott and an A-list ensemble tell a bloody corporate tale that doubles as a sharp-edged satire.

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