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For a "galaxy-brain" show, Apple TV+'s Severance delivers on its lofty premise

  • "Nightmarish scenario? Check," says Judy Berman. "Bland corporate backdrop? Check. Harsh lighting? Check. Stylized dialogue? That too. Yes, Severance ... is another one of those sci-fi series infused with mind-bending—if often oversimplified—ideas about the intersection of technology, capitalism, and free will. See also: Westworld, Made for Love, Peacock’s Brave New World adaptation, the British and American versions of Utopia, the TNT adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, and too many more to mention. Inspired by the memeification of thoughts so deep they’re shallow (or so shallow they’re deep) and borrowing liberally from social media, I call them galaxy-brain shows. And Severance is the rare example that delivers on its lofty premise." Berman adds: "The show only becomes more distinctive and captivating, as its nine-episode debut season races toward a genuinely jarring finale. Part of its success comes down to execution. The acting is universally excellent, from (Britt) Lower’s combination of willfulness and desperation to theatrical but nuanced character performances from the virtuosic (Patricia) Arquette, (John) Turturro and, in a role I won’t detail for fear of spoiling, Christopher Walken. Ben Stiller, an actor turned director who got similarly show-stopping performances out of Arquette and a similarly talented cast in Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, also deserves credit here—as well as for the dramatic contrasts in atmosphere he creates, between fluorescent-lit Lumon and the nighttime world outside, without sacrificing coherence. And unlike so many streaming titles, Severance understands that a tightly edited 40-minute episode can be more effective than a flabby, indulgent hour and change."


    • Severance is the punk rock of office dramas: "Severance is one of those shows that sticks with you. It burrows into the recesses of your brain, as it whispers that there’s something wrong with corporate America and every day you show up for your office job, you’re complicit," says Kayla Cobb. "That’s because even the most over-the-top detail in creator Dan Erickson and directors Ben Stiller and Aoife Mcardle’s thriller is rooted in fact. Severance isn’t just one of the most tonally honest versions of office life; it’s an entirely new genre of corporate horror that’s a force unto itself."
    • Funny, terrifying, and brilliant in equal measure, Severance is one of the most impressive new shows of the last couple years: "There are some big, fascinating questions at play in Severance about grief, connection, and identity," says Brian Tallerico. "The work/life divide has been a talking point, especially during the pandemic, but what if it was literal? What would that mean? There are also questions about why a business would want severed employees and the moral implications that would entail. What are they hiding? What can we handle not knowing about ourselves and those we work for when we’re behind a desk? Creator Dan Erickson spins his concept in consistently unexpected, riveting ways, pushing his characters through a perfectly balanced series of plot twists and character revelations. The writing may be a bit out there for some viewers, and there’s a tiny narrative sag mid-season before an incredible final couple episodes push to a spectacular cliffhanger, but the ensemble grounds it, keeping us engaged with the people as much as their predicaments."
    • Severance is a tense, slow-burning thriller that masterfully controls its momentum over the course of nine excellent episode: "This show is weird," says Alexis Nedd, adding: "Severance imagines a world where 'work smarter, not harder' is not a platitude, but a threat. The severance procedure may be fictional, but the soulless corporate efficiency and irresponsible tech that inspired this fable are very real. Severance is a visually fascinating work of art, an enthralling mystery, and an anticapitalist takedown of toxic labor practices; it's the first must-watch Apple TV+ show of the year."
    • Severance captures the spirit of The Great Resignation: "Severance, a grimly hilarious ode to the horrors of professional life, imagines a world in which the Office Space dream is reality: You can come home from work each day and forget everything about what went on in the office," says Gabrielle Bruney. "The show is a stylish and endlessly thrilling, even if the world it depicts is both deeply frightening and much too like our own." Bruney adds that Severance is "all a little heady, but delivered with a hefty amount of style to help the world building go down. Most of the series is directed by Ben Stiller, and imbued with a quiet, odd-ball humor."
    • Severance turns the workplace comedy into a horror show: "The screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said he’d been talking to Ben Stiller about working together," says Kate Knibbs. "That project fell apart, but the new Apple TV+ series Severance suggests that Stiller, its director, still keenly appreciates Kaufman’s sensibilities. Although he wasn’t actually involved, Severance fits neatly into the Charlie Kaufman Cinematic Universe (CKCU), a world filled with wistful sad-sacks lost in metaphysical mazes. Like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s about a man trying to deal with the grief of lost love by messing with his memory via experimental surgery. Like Being John Malkovich, it uses a high-concept mind-control premise to explore knotty questions about identity. Like Adaptation, it’s fond of genre-hopping and piling twists and turns on top of twists and turns. And, as with Kaufman’s best work, it’s at least as funny as it is trippy. Severance opens, however, like a horror movie."
    • Severance condemns a hellish corporate culture while remaining suspenseful, enlightening, and oh so much fun: "It also takes full advantage of a talented ensemble," says Ben Travers. "At Lumon, Mark is joined by Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), and fresh recruit Helly (Brit Lower). Dylan is immediately recognizable as someone too smart for his job. His desk is covered with company rewards — erasers ('mostly decorative, since we don’t have pencils'), finger traps, etc. — all earned for finishing ahead of schedule, all covered in the company’s blue and white branding. Irving, meanwhile, looks down on these perks as 'children’s' toys, preferring to realize his reward in an honest day’s labor. By-the-book and loyal to his Lumon overlords, Irving still suffers from strange visions dreams: black ooze spilling from the cubicle walls, covering his ’80s era computer monitor and keyboard, threatening to envelop him along with his station."
    • Severance asks viewers to think about identity in a fresh new way: "It pulls the reality from beneath your feet and works far more often than it doesn’t," says Chris Vognar. "Mark (Adam Scott) and his co-workers at the fictional Lumen Industries sit in front of their computer screens all day pushing numbers around. They have no idea why. But once they leave the office, they don’t worry about it. They have undergone severance, a surgical procedure that cleaves the consciousness, erasing all memory of work as the employee rides the elevator from the workspace. Then, when it’s time to go back, the worker’s personal life vanishes in turn. It’s a juicy idea, and the Severance creative team, including director and executive producer Ben Stiller, instills it with a mix of office space humor and dystopian dread."
    • Severance is a binge-worthy show that you'll have to wait to binge: "The only bad thing we can say about Severance is this is a show you will be dying to binge, and you won’t be able to, at least if you start watching it now," says Cheryl Eddy. "The first two episodes of Severance begin streaming (Friday); the remaining seven episodes will roll out weekly on Apple TV+."
    • Severance is a vexing near-future science-fiction mystery with overtones of a corporate conspiracy thriller: "There is certainly a strain of comedy being worked here, along with some seemingly random, one might say Buñuelian weirdnesses, but it is not often funny; at times, it feels meant as satire, but of what?" says Robert Lloyd. "Severance isn’t without ideas — possibly, too many for any to take hold. Some might be better termed effects, as in the first shot of the series: Helly seen from above, lying on a conference table, like a murder victim or sacrifice. It’s visually striking, possibly metaphorical, although why she is lying on a conference table and not, say, on a couch, or seated in a comfortable chair, seems predicated more on the aesthetic than the sensible. More than a few things of that sort occur here."
    • Severance is the year's first must-watch show: "In your adult life you hear a lot of talk about separating your home from your job, creating a 'work/life balance' so that you don't catch yourself doing tasks during the hours you're supposed to be off, and so that the personal never bleeds into the professional," says Emma Stefansky. "It's a lofty pursuit made even more difficult by the modern age's state of constant connectivity—not to mention the current situation still forcing plenty to work from our homes. If only there was a way to separate our jobs from our social lives that was as simple as, say, a routine brain surgery that's over in a matter of minutes. Severance, the brilliant thriller series on Apple TV+ created by Dan Erickson and directed in part by Ben Stiller, offers just such a solution, its office drones undergoing a procedure that permanently blocks their office lives from their home lives. Of course, nothing is so simple."
    • Severance feels like a cross between Black Mirror and The IT Crowd, exploring the horrors of capitalism and technology with a banal kind of cheer: "Where the show succeeds the most is in painting just how messed up this really is for the people stuck in the office," says Andrew Webster. "Think about it: all of the good parts of their day don’t happen to them. They don’t even sleep. For them, they leave the office one second, and the next, they’re right back. Mark says that he can feel the effects of sleeping, but it’s not something any of them actually experience for themselves. Life is just nonstop work — a never-ending purgatory inside of a cubicle. To make matters worse, they don’t have a say in being there either. The only way to quit is to file a request with their other self, and since that self has no idea how bad things are inside the office, the answer always comes back no."
    • Severance is ultimately a thriller, and a deft one, built on the way the brain just fundamentally shouldn’t be asked to do that: "The first two episodes slowly build out the rules behind the dry surreality of the office, and the world beyond the walls of the office," says Zosha Millman. "The decor is so mid-century that the bland, stale air of the office can be felt in every shot. And in Mark’s time as an outie, we see the world beyond the Lumon building as cold and gray, with well-meaning yuppies who have to read thinkpieces to know it wasn’t called World War I at the time. If that sounds like the indulgent sprawl of a streaming TV show, Severance’s unspooling of the peculiarities of the show’s world over its opening pair of episodes at least feels earned. By spoon feeding the day-to-day cruelty of the job, the series writers convincingly concoct a society that might allow for a choice as controversial as the Severance procedure. And as the mystery of the show slowly mounts, the pleasures of it do too — the cast alternating between droll and cheery; the methodical office politics twisted into something darker."
    • Severance is like a Charlie Kaufman-designed nightmare: "Sci-fi stories about altered consciousness, from They Live to The Matrix to Homecoming, often involve people having their minds tinkered with by aliens or evil institutions," says James Poniewozik. "Severance asks whether, given an incentive, you would subjugate a part of yourself, outsourcing your drudgery to another you, like Homer Simpson deferring his problems to 'Future Homer.' Playful and mordantly funny, Severance is like a Charlie Kaufman-designed nightmare, from the midcentury-menacing set to the way it sketches the innies’ hermetic lives. They walk through the elevator doors at quitting time, then immediately back in to start the day, as if someone has snipped off the rest of life and twisted the remainder into a Möbius strip."
    • What carries Severance more than plot is viewer curiosity: Creator Dan Erickson "does a masterful job of parsing out details slower than you might want, but faster than it would take for true impatience to set in," says Daniel Fienberg. "Very pretentious viewers will compare the mixture of surrealism and minimalism to Beckett and Ionesco, with just a bit of Foucault thrown in. Somewhat pretentious viewers will compare the pervasive oddness and undercurrent of sadness to Charlie Kaufman. And viewers who really, really want Severance to be more story-driven will categorize it in the solution-to-overwork sci-fi genre with films like Multiplicity or the Adam Sandler opus Click."
    • Severance remains mysterious, but doesn’t act like a mystery box: "Sure, Erickson and his writers work to create suspense, as does Apple TV+ by opting for a weekly release after this initial drop," says Alison Herman. "What happened to Petey? Why does Harmony live next door to Mark’s outie, disguising herself as a nurse? What is Lumon up to that’s so important it’s invented an invasive medical procedure to protect its secrets? As compelling as the vibes may be, Severance does need a story with momentum to structure them around. But Severance is less interested in scattering bread crumbs around its plot than creating arresting images to evoke its themes."
    • It’s ideal to dive into Severance without knowing anything about the plot: "It’s rare to get this fresh of an experience in today’s content-saturated, IP-friendly environment," says Cory Woodroof. "Apple TV+ already has one page-turner on its hands with Servant, but Severance does a really great job of building the mystery without sacrificing plausibility, something Servant suffered a bit with in its first season before correcting it with the second. It unwraps itself carefully, but with enough zest and melancholy to keep you engaged and feeling for its story and for its characters. 20 years ago, this is probably a movie, but in the age of the 'death of the mid-budget adult drama,' Severance is a reassuring reminder that the spirit of those delicate, intellectual, original stories can survive. If Hell was a Staples breakroom, it’s exactly what Severance would try to get you out of. It’s a must-watch."
    • Severance starts off tough to watch, but ends up being a great surprise: "When I say it took me a few episodes to get into a show, it usually means that the show itself needed a few episodes to figure its world out before it was able to draw me into it," says Caroline Framke. "When I say that about Severance, though, it’s because the beginning of the show’s first season is as unnerving as it is bleak. The first three episodes create a world both completely unlike ours and yet terrifyingly similar enough to prove jarring in a way that became hard to shake between viewings...Suffice it to say, sitting down to watch this show isn’t an especially relaxing experience. By the end of its 9-episode first season, though, Severance becomes the best kind of TV surprise: one that rewards early patience with a real knockout of a back half."
    • Ben Stiller explains his shift away from away from acting to directing and producing: "I really decided recently, or probably about five years ago, that I didn't wanna do that anymore and just do one thing at a time," says Stiller, who hasn't played a major role since 2017. "And lately I've been exploring projects (and) making things as a director and producer, and I’ve been very happy with that. But I really do look forward to acting again one of these days.”
    • Christopher Walken was drawn to Severance because it was different and gave a chance to reteam with John Turturro: "In show business, very often your career has to do with playing a certain type of part," he says. "Severance was something different and that was appealing — to do something people don’t usually ask you to do. And a big part of Severance was going to work with John (Turturro) every day. We’re old friends — I’ve been in three or four of the movies he wrote and directed — and I find when you work with someone you’re close to, it shows. You don’t have to talk about anything. I guess it’s what they call chemistry."
    • Severance allows Adam Scott to do what he does best: That is, "play a blandly handsome everydude while also showing the pain and shame and passion underlying that pose," says Alexis Soloski in a New York Times profile of Scott, who filmed the series while living alone away from his wife and kids and grieving for his late mom. "Playing the 'outtie' made him realize how much he had pushed away his own grief over his mother’s death. So that’s in there, too," says Soloski. "It was a long shoot and, given the pandemic protocols, often a lonesome one. Some days were spent almost entirely within a windowless Lumon Industries room — all fluorescent light and plastic partitions and soul-crushing wall-to-wall carpet. Scott put it more mildly. “It was a strange eight months,” he said.
    • Creator Dan Erickson, Ben Stiller and Adam Scott answer burning questions about Severance's premiere

    TOPICS: Severance, Apple TV+, Adam Scott, Ben Stiller, Christopher Walken, Dan Erickson