‘Severance’: Clock ticks slowly in Apple TV+’s freaky, futuristic workplace
In occasionally intriguing series, deadpan Adam Scott is perfectly cast as office drone whose brain is altered to separate work life and outside life.
If you’re returning to an office soon after a long hiatus, if you’re even THINKING about returning to an office any time this year, might I recommend you think twice about watching “Severance” — because after nine episodes of this workplace psychological mystery, you’ll be traumatized at the mere thought of cubicles, desktop monitors and break rooms, security badges, security personnel, brutal lighting, the “Groundhog Day” repetitiveness of your days and oh yeah, that one guy who never stops sucking up to the bosses and prattling on about the history of the company.
Two episodes premiere Friday on Apple TV+, with a new episode premiering each subsequent Friday.
In “Severance,” the office is hell.
Or maybe it’s a kind of heaven, washing away our pain.
No. Hell. At least hellish.
These days it’s more difficult than ever to separate your Work Self and your Home Self — especially if your workplace is 10 feet from your living room sofa, or perhaps IS your living room sofa. In the deliberately paced, well-acted and at times intriguing Apple TV+ series “Severance,” we are in a near-future in which you can volunteer for a procedure, aka brain surgery, that will utterly and completely separate your workplace and off-the-clock selves. When you check in for work at the headquarters of the mysterious and omniscient and coldly intimidating Lumon Industries, you have instant and total amnesia about your outside life. All you know is work, and your colleagues, and your job, which involves macro data refinement or some such mind-numbing thing.
A world removed from the wacky workplace antics of “Parks and Recreation,” Adam Scott is still a master at deadpan, everyman, reactive comedy and drama —and he’s perfectly cast as one “Mark S.,” a former college professor who is devastated by the death of his wife and took the job at Lumon Industries so for eight hours every day, he would forget his pain. (It works both ways; once Mark and his colleagues exit the offices and return to their normal lives, they have no real memories of their job experiences either. Mark doesn’t realize his nosy neighbor, played by the invaluable Patricia Arquette, is his supervisor at work. And yet she knows who he is, because … HIJINKS and DUPLICITY.)
Britt Lower is outstanding as “Helly B.,” who has just joined the program and desperately wants out, attempting multiple escapes from the labyrinthine corridors of Lumon only to find herself right where she started. That’s because the corporate version of yourself — the “innie” — is at the mercy of the real-world version of yourself, i.e., the “outtie.” As long as Helly B. the outtie wants Helly B. the innie to keep returning to work and thus essentially enter into a waking coma for eight hours a day, that’s the way it will go.
Meanwhile, John Turturro’s Irving strikes up a friendship with Christopher Walken’s Burt, who is about to retire from Lumon, while the deceptively friendly Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) acts as a sort of prison guard, monitoring everything the employees do and rewarding them with small perks for hitting performance goals.
It’s all very civilized and it’s all very controlled and it’s all quite unnerving, because we know there’s something “Twilight Zone” about this whole situation — but while director Ben Stiller does a fine job of placing us inside the expansive yet claustrophobic grounds of Lumon, and the cast is universally excellent, “Severance” starts with a slow crawl and builds to a steady walk — but never really takes flight and spends far too much time leading us to a reveal we knew was coming five episodes earlier.