Comedies like Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and The Office are some of the most popular shows on television, each one highlighting the family vibes, and all-too-often hilarious minutiae, of the workplace.
Severance, one of Apple TV Plus’s most recent additions, flips that trend on its head, highlighting the horrors of a nine to five through a sinister sci-fi lens instead. In doing so, it’s fast shaping up as one of the best shows on television right now.
Created and written by Dan Erickson, the super-stylish thriller sees the always-great Adam Scott play Mark, a seemingly sweet but slightly awkward man who leads a team of office workers at a mysterious biotech company called Lumon Industries. While he and his colleagues understand what they have to do on a day-to-day basis – use ancient computers to sort encrypted numbers into digital bins – the why is much more elusive.
The nature of their work is so secret, in fact, that they’ve been required to undergo a procedure called ‘severance’, which separates their consciousnesses into work mode and home mode. Essentially, when they’re in the office, their ‘innie’ can’t remember anything about their lives on the outside; they’re trapped there. As soon as they leave, their ‘outie’ can’t recall what they’ve been doing all day.
Turns out, when he’s not at Lumon, Mark is a grieving widower struggling to move past the death of his wife – which goes some way to explaining why he would agree to be ‘severed’. He also unknowingly lives next door to his shady boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who goes by the name Mrs. Selvig at home, and doesn’t appear to have had her life split in two like the others.
Outie Mark’s life is turned upside down, though, when a man who claims to be his former work BFF rocks up, and asks him to help expose Lumon’s secrets. The pair’s early exchanges are intriguing and heartbreaking in equal measure, as we yearn to know what the creepy corporation is up to, and witness Mark’s indifference to this person who at least part of him was clearly very close to.
Severance leans into its bleakness elsewhere, too. Mark’s co-worker Dylan (Zach Cherry) determines his self-worth by the perks he’s been awarded for his stellar performance – and by perks, we mean erasers, finger traps, and, if you’re really good, waffle parties. Meanwhile, Irving (John Turturro) entertains himself by learning all he can about Lumon’s company policies and admiring the rotating, often morbid, artwork that dons the otherwise empty hallways.
Then there’s Helly (Britt Lower), the new girl who wastes no time making it clear that she’d rather be anywhere else than at a desk in one of Lumon’s stark, windowless rooms. In the fourth episode, she threatens to cut off her fingers with a guillotine unless her superiors let her quit, and when her outie refuses the request, she takes her attempt to free herself to unsettling extremes. It’s bone-chillingly dark stuff that cleverly comments on identity-stripping jobs, modern-day grind culture, and unmanageable work-life balances, without ever feeling too on the nose.
Opening up about the inspiration behind his high-concept series, Erickson recalled his time working in an office, and how often he would catch himself “wishing [he] could just disassociate from the next eight hours.”
“It occurred to me that that’s a messed up thing to wish for,” he told Inverse before the show premiered. “We’ve got such precious little time on this Earth, but in that moment, I totally would have given up those eight hours.”
That’s not to say Severance is all doom and gloom. Six out of its nine episodes are directed by Ben Stiller, known for his farcical leanings (he directed and starred in Zoolander), and is no stranger to bizarre black comedy, having helmed titles such as Duplex and The Cable Guy. (The other three are directed by Brave New World’s Aoife McArdle).
Elsewhere, Scott plays ‘innie’ Mark with the same level of deadpan wit he’s imbued many of the characters he has played throughout his career, while Cherry’s Dylan makes up increasingly absurd theories about what their ‘outties’ are like. There’s also the relatable rivalry between Mark and the gang’s department, the Macrodata Refinement division, and the mysterious others, which in turn, gives the slow-burn romance between Irving and Burt, an Optics and Design employee, a delicious Romeo and Juliet-style, star-crossed lovers vibe. And if all that’s not enough to convince you to catch up before the first season concludes (and hopefully, unravels its mystery) on April 8, then maybe its amazing, tone-setting opening titles will.
An irresistible mix of Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone, Office Space, and The Office, Severance proves that the workplace comedy’s shift is over; it’s time for the workplace thriller to clock in.
Severance is available to stream on Apple TV Plus now, with new episodes uploading every Friday. For more watching recommendations, check out our list of the best TV shows of all time.