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Severance perfectly captures the reckoning over modern workplace culture

  • The Apple TV+ sci-fi psychological thriller is "the kind of miraculous television show that manages to mirror, and even anticipate, the shifts in our culture just as they’re happening," says Gita Jackson. "As the severed workers of Lumon Industries learn that they have the right to ask for better treatment, so are workers across America." Jackson says that "watching this show is an absolute thrill ride, with each episode ending on a maddening cliffhanger. I haven’t screamed at my television this much since the early days of Game of Thrones. But it’s not just the good storytelling that makes Severance captivating—each moment of drama is buoyed by a poignant reminder of how working people are beaten down by their bosses." Jackson notes that "for so many people, the only way to keep your job is to put your head down and not complain, lest they use their proverbial bad soap on you." That's why Severance resonates. "This is what so many workers across America are all saying right now," says Jackson. "They’re people, and they deserve to be heard, to be treated with dignity, to have a workplace that doesn’t abuse them. Severance is an echo of this cultural moment, where workers are saying that they won’t be exploited anymore."


    • Severance is actually an argument for returning to the office: "After years of pandemic-driven remoteness, every Zoomified white collar worker must be feeling existential dread about a looming return to the office," says Joanna Weiss. "Can I stomach a commute? Do I want to hear other people chewing? Would I be happier working every day in elastic-waist pants? In other words, it’s a fitting moment for Apple TV’s Severance, the most vicious satire of corporate life since Office Space, and possibly ever. In its just-ended nine-episode first season the office in question is so nightmarish — a maze of antiseptic white corridors, threateningly cheery corporate overlords, and a culture that grows creepier with each new revelation — that, by rights, it should send viewers running from the workplace forever. But whether it’s intended to or not, Severance makes a surprisingly strong argument for the opposite. For all of its inhumanity, the series suggests, the office is still the best place to work —because it’s only in the office that you get coworkers."
    • Severance's season finale is one of the best hours of TV of 2022: "There’s a fine alchemy to a perfect season finale," says Gabrielle Bruney. "When it comes to a twisty dramas like Yellowjackets or Westworld, the finale has to reveal the answers to at least a few of the mysteries the show’s writers have been dangling in front of us all season, or risk royally pissing off fans. Give away too much, however, and a show risks destroying its momentum and leaves us without a compelling reason to tune in next time. It’s a tricky balance, but Severance more than nailed it with its season finale, which debuted Friday on Apple TV+. The year’s not even halfway over, but I’m willing to bet that this will go down as the best episode of TV."
    • Severance's season finale was mind-blowing: "Apple TV+ announced a second season of Severance just days before the series’ first season finale premiered, a move that may have saved society as we know it," says Kevin Fallon. "Had the show’s obsessive fans gotten to the end of that episode, which is now out, and not known there would be another season to resolve what happens in those last moments, there would have been mayhem. Mass protests. Marches. Hysteria. Boycotts against Apple and all its products. My MacBook would be out the window and floating in the Hudson by now. (OK, there would be a bunch of angry tweets, probably. But still!) In other words, that is how you do a season finale. That is how you thrill the show’s loyal viewers, who have spent the season combing episodes for clues and Easter eggs, then taking to Reddit to debate theories."
    • Severance's Season 1 finale seemed designed for a second season -- not to give closure: "To put it simply, Severance is lucky that it was renewed for a second season the day before the season finale aired," says Kathryn Porter. "As intriguing as the entire season was, and as much as I will be eagerly awaiting the second season, it was almost painfully obvious that Severance was written to be more than one season long. Sure, the finale felt like a finale, but every thread it sealed off gave way to two more that are already fraying at the ends. Had the show come out of Netflix, it feels like it would have gotten a two-part season instead of ending its first like this. Despite the fact that we’ve been waiting this entire time to find out more about Lumon and what it does, there are so many things that happen in this finale that it doesn’t ultimately give any true closure. For a show with a nine episode season, we could have done with at least one more episode..."
    • Severance nails the absolute inhumanity of current work culture: "One part that Severance nails is how business language can distort itself to the point where words mean nothing," says Monica Torres. "Mark and his team all work in 'Macrodata Refinement,' and even after watching the finale I am no closer to understanding what exactly is getting refined. At Lumon, obtuse business language is also a euphemism for corporate misdeeds. The break room is actually a detention center designed to break employee’s spirits. An 'overtime contingency' mechanism is a sinister surveillance tool that violates employees’ privacy. Lumon’s severed floor is really where the show pokes fun at sad corporate perks. Irving, the most-senior macrodata refiner (played wonderfully by John Turturro), remembers a time when employees were incentivized with coffee creamer."
    • Severance creator Dan Erickson on his approach to the finale: "Primarily, this season is about these worlds colliding," he says." "And this individual, this guy (Mark), but also these two worlds that have been so intentionally kept apart sort of inevitably fusing and finding their way together. The overtime contingency where the innies are waking themselves up on the outside, that had always been part of the story. And that was always going to be the idea that they’re waking up and they’re having these revelations, that they’re answering this question that was asked literally the first question of the show, which is, 'who are you?' And so it was always going to be that, but in my original (outline) of the season, there was then going to be a subsequent few episodes, it was like, episode eight, maybe, was going to be the overtime. Then we were going to see some of the fallout of it, and it was gonna it was gonna continue on."
    • Erickson says it was ultimately Ben Stiller who decided where to end Season 1: "I think it's by far the most effective point where we could have ended this part of the story, storytelling-wise and for the characters," he says.
    • How Severance uses subtle lighting choices to enhance its subtle sci-fi storytelling: Cinematographer Jessica Lee Gagné, in partnership with production designer Jeremy Hindle, found lighting cues and nuances in the script to offer variation in the overwhelming white office: “There were things like emergency lighting or a music-dance experience, and every little door they opened or space they used, we tried to make it as complex as possible," says Gagné. She admits the white wall space was scary, so she went through numerous camera tests to see how contrast would work against the white and how color would pop. In pre-viz, she says, “we made mini sets and test-shot them to see where we landed."
    • Production designer Jeremy Hindle's starting point were offices from the 1960s: "They’re working in this office environment, and they’re brought in to just be these pro-workers, and they’re birthed into the place,” says Hindle. “It should be like what offices used to be like. Beautiful desks, beautiful structures, beautiful lights. Just about work. On the desk there’s one pen, a rolodex, a phone. It felt like it had to be that same tone — but way more playful.”
    • How director and executive producer Ben Stiller created an "unbearably tense" finale: "The way we shot the show, we couldn’t shoot it episode by episode. We had to do cross-boarding, where we would shoot pieces from different episodes that were all at the same location," says Stiller. "But I love 24, and in my mind, it’s sort of like our 24 episode. You have to just hope that everything up to that point has led to everybody feeling all the stakes of what was going on, and then we were going to be doing this real-time thing. But every episode of this show didn’t really come together until we were finished shooting the whole thing. Part of me was worried it wouldn’t be tense enough. And also, I haven’t had this experience before of doing a show where people are wondering what’s going to happen next, and what does this mean? It was all in a bubble. We didn’t know."
    • How Dan Erickson made Severance like a video game: "I sent Ben Stiller a clip of King's Quest V, my favorite game growing up. And I was like, 'This is kind of what I see,'" Erickson says. "There was that retrofuturist aspect in the scripts when I initially wrote it, but I just really liked that aesthetic...But that kind of an answer wasn't enough for Ben, who's very meticulous about details and logic. It was really open to creating a world that was half real and half not, but it had to at least have its own logic on its own. There's this sense that you're in this soup of time and space that could be anywhere and at any time. And so it was scary and fun to get in the heads of those corporate overlords."
    • Severance was never intended to be a show: "Dan Erickson's pilot script for Severance, Apple TV+'s sci-fi thriller series about office employees who undergo a procedure to completely separate their work lives from their personal ones, was never supposed to turn into an entire show," says Emma Stefansky. "The script was good—it ended up on the Blood List, the sci-fi/horror equivalent of the Black List that showcases unproduced screenplays—and Erickson was shopping it around the television world as a sample to get staffed in someone else's writers room. It caught the attention of none other than Ben Stiller and his company Red Hour Productions, all of whom were sucked into Erickson's creepy, stylized fable of a corporate office gone very, very wrong." Erickson adds: "I remember walking down the spiral staircase into the basement and seeing him standing there, and it was just like, 'Oh, God, there he is. But he immediately was like, 'This is the type of pilot that most people would be impressed by, but then pass on, but let's just do it. Like, f*ck it, let's make the show.'"
    • Dan Erickson, Ben Stiller, Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman discuss the season finale: Erickson reveals Season 2 will have 10 episodes, up from Season 1's nine.
    • Britt Lower deliberately kept herself in the dark: “For the purposes of Season 1, I kept myself pretty in the dark about what the Eagan family does and what Lumon Industries does,” says Lower. “Because I’m operating as the eyes of the audience, it felt important for me to remain in a state of discovery, being really hungry for the answer to what’s going on. Helly’s most-often-asked question is, ‘What the hell?’ And I wanted to be right in that state of investigation and curiosity.”
    • Did the coldness and sterility of the MDR space have any impact on Lower's performance?: "It was super-effective in inspiring me to want to get the hell out of there, and dually, it really makes you focus on the people in the space," says Lower. "I think that’s why the connection between the characters is so strong. There was something really beautiful about it. It was almost like being in a play. We’re just focused on the connection with each other because the set is so sparse."
    • Lower on her audition process: "I actually made a self-tape in my bathroom and there are still kick marks on the door"
    • Lower’s audition immediately stood out to Ben Stiller: “She had that rebelliousness and at the same time was really funny,” he says.
    • Tramell Tillman on how he found a way to identify with Milchick: "For me, it was important to dive into his motivation, his internal life," he says. "This is a guy who believes in Lumon culture and what Lumon is offering. And while it's not clear at this time what exactly is happening at Lumon, for me, it was important to dial into his belief. Most devotees who follow anything, they believe that what it is that they're subscribing to has beneficial things — things that are going to help the world. That's something that I can identify with. So marrying my own personal convictions and my personal relationship with spirituality, it was really easy for me to make that connection with Milchick's motivations, following blindly into an idea for the hope of better humanity as a whole. And then what I like to do, because I enjoy playing multilayered characters, is just add more flavor and more and more color to this person, so that on the outside, he seems like a duck on water — very still, calm — but on the inside, underneath the water, there's so much going on."

    TOPICS: Severance, Apple TV+, Adam Scott, Ben Stiller, Britt Lower, Dan Erickson, Jeremy Hindle, Jessica Lee Gagné, Patricia Arquette, Tramell Tillman, Cinematography, Production Design