Streaming / Television

Severance review: Captivating, compelling and an absolute must-watch from Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson

Despite stacks of social media indicating otherwise, most every day jobs don’t necessarily fit the thrill of choice and freedom as we’d like to suggest they do. The majority take their day job as a means to an end, to pay bills and to do other things they love in the space that surrounds the mundane. It’s a very modern equilibrium. If you’ve worked for a number of years, then you may have developed a workday persona, where you’re the same human being but maybe more cohesive and focused, pretending to be an adult but with the ‘other you’ always lingering in the corner of a room during long, drawn-out meetings.

Where am I going with this pre-amble, you ask? We’re heading straight down the corridors of the new Apple TV+ 9-part series Severance. Written and created by Dan Erickson, the show is an unerringly accurate equal measure of invention, and a reflection of modern lifestyle, all coiled within a mysterious, invisible smoke monster of mystery. And, it’s all related to one of the key 21st century discussion points: which is that of a work/life balance.

Erickson’s Severance is an intelligent look in what could happen if we could literally separate the two. Slipping inside the perspective of Mark Scout (an exceptional Adam Scott), he’s a mid-level manager who leads a small team at Lumon Industries. Mark and his colleagues have undergone a ‘severance’ procedure in their brains, which surgically separates their memories between work and personal lives.

In the day, they go to work and have no memories from the outside world, and once they head up in the lift and go home, they have no memory of what they did in the workday. In some ways this sounds magnificent, but the ‘balance’ gradually begins to destabilise after Mark starts questioning what work Lumon actually do, prompted by a visit from someone who’s in serious ill health, and Mark has no memory of, but turns out he’s been working with for years. Severance looks calm on the surface but there’s a troubling secret hidden beneath the endless corridors and pleasantries, and as truths rise to the surface, Mark can’t avoid the reality of what he’s avoiding on the outside world, as it seeps into the inside one.

Exec Producer and Director Ben Stiller brings a unique series to life, with an utterly captivating concept, by incorporating a visual palette that effortlessly switches between clean, sterile and organised in the Office, to dark, chaotic and mysterious outside of it. Alongside stellar cinematography series work, with symmetry a prime plan, from Jessica Lee Gagné, the vast yet sparse sets create a space-like atmosphere which adds to everything you see. As well as a touch of Duncan Jones’ Moon, I also felt a hint of Stiller’s wonderfully-framed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where every shot is important, plus an additional story touch of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Tales from the Loop, so if you relish that ambiance, then you’ll definitely feel this seep into your brain.

With Stiller directing six episodes, he shares the vision with Aoife McArdle, who directs three episodes, and between them they open a universe of questions over life, love and dealing with loss as well as subtle contemplations over the nature of data secrecy, corporations wanting to control your lives through reward and distraction, and the very real narrative beat of human relationships and mental health. But, while this might sound heavy, Severance is also very funny, packed full of dark humour that brings you in with the humanity of our core characters before popping that bubble and bringing you back to reality in specific story situations.

And who are these characters? Well, Severance is blessed with an outstanding cast, who all get a moment to show their talents. Adam Scott leads the way as Mark and gives a terrific performance as the troubled and organised (depending on where we are) lead man in the middle of an unravelling mystery, whilst dealing with complex emotional developments. He’s accompanied in the office by Zach Cherry’s Dylan, who gets an alluring story arc, John Turturro’s Irving who brings to life a character in a way I’ve not seen him do before (and great chemistry with Christopher Walken’s Burt over time), plus Britt Lower who – together with Scott – is a vital part of Severance, and she offers an equally nuanced, charismatic and strong performance as Helly, the newest employee to the Lumon severance floor.

We also get superb work from Patricia Arquette, as the brilliant and unsettling Peggy, Tramell Tillman as Mr Milchick – who’s an inspired mix of creepiness, control and the unknown, Dichen Lachman as Ms Casey – with secrets behind a precise performance, and important roles for Marc Gellar, Sydney Cole Alexander, Nikki M. James, and Yul Vazquez. This is very much an ensemble series, and they all have very different roles to play in the story development.

I won’t spoil Severance, because it’d destroy the beautiful progression of the unravelling of secrets, the individual mediations on life itself, as well as comments on freedom, obsession, control, plus religious quandaries and a huge dose of surrealism, but you’ll want to watch it and discuss it afterwards – it’s definitely in that realm.

Alternative reality. Surprise. Strangeness. Beautiful. Terrifying and oddly timeless, Severance will keep you hooked right up to the finale, and flip your brain on countless occasions, and in the best way possible.

Severance is globally on Apple TV+ now, followed by new weekly installments, every Friday.

3 thoughts on “Severance review: Captivating, compelling and an absolute must-watch from Ben Stiller and Dan Erickson

  1. Pingback: First look at Dennis Lehane’s Black Bird, a new 6-episode psychological thriller starring Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, and Sepideh Moafi | critical popcorn

  2. Pingback: Oh yes, Apple TV+ announces Season Two renewal for Severance! | critical popcorn

  3. Pingback: Trailer: Dennis Lehane’s Black Bird, a new 6-episode psychological thriller starring Taron Egerton, Paul Walter Hauser, and Sepideh Moafi | critical popcorn

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