If you haven’t watched Severance onyou’re missing out on one of the weirdest and best shows of 2022.
Severance is a powerful blend of surreal workplace comedy and corporate thriller. I couldn’t get enough of its first season. It’s common for shows to feature puzzle box narratives, it’s less common to see them come together so convincingly and expertly.
Severance has been renewed for a second season, and based on the Season 1 finale, the show certainly has a lot of direction for the future. Ahead of the premiere, I spoke with creator Dan Erickson about the show’s news, working with series director Ben Stiller, and got answers about the logic behind the show’s surreal vibe. . (Note: minor spoilers ahead.)
Set in a mysterious office run by the Lumon Corporation, Severance follows employees whose personal memories are wiped every time they clock in at work. They focus only on their missions and have no contact with the outside world. That is, until a group of rebellious employees set out to unlock the company’s dark secrets.
The series leans heavily on the inherent weirdness of office culture, which has been greatly amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Severance carries anti-capitalist sentiment everywhere, especially when it comes to watching the team in Lumon’s macro data refinement department slowly rebel against the company and regain control of their lives. His style is a deft blend of the workplace humor of 1999’s Office Space satire, punctuated with the unsettling impact of the best episodes of Black Mirror.
The issue of work/life balance as a cultural touchstone hits differently now in 2022, and creator Erickson is certainly aware of that after seeing the world change during production on the show.
“We were three weeks away from filming when the lockdowns happened, and we were like, ‘What kind of world are we going to air this show in?'” Erickson said. “But what was so funny was that it just changed the context. I don’t think it watered down the story at all. It just underscored how weird and difficult it is to create that separation. [between life and work]. I think people are looking to keep control of the personal side of their lives. It’s so telling to me that when it became unsafe to go out, the corporate response wasn’t, “Oh, let’s limit what we have to ask people to do.” But rather, ‘Well, let’s just go to their homes.'”
Severance also explores the weirdness of Lumon’s retro-futuristic company: the retro computers and office aesthetic look like they’ve been plucked from the 1980s. It makes the characters feel like they’re stepping out of time every time they go to work – and in a sense they are. By undergoing the “separation” treatment, workers essentially create a second version of themselves that only seems to exist in the office and has no memory of the outside world. It takes the dual nature of work/life balance to the extreme, and it’s disconcerting to watch play out.
This series is also one of the most visually stunning TV shows this year. He does an impeccable job of showing how strange it is to work in this company, where the main characters spend their days sorting numbers into “boxes” on their computers with no idea what the numbers mean. The visual effects convey paranoia and disorientation everywhere in an isolated work environment. It evokes the same style of cerebral shows like Mr. Robot and even video games like indie favorite The Stanley Parable or Hideo Kojima’s ill-fated horror game PT.
The main story of Elevating Severance is the casting, which features several comedic actors stepping out of their comfort zone. Adam Scott’s brand is much of the plot’s focal point, and Scott does a great job of blending his deadpan humor with his dramatic chops. John Turturro, Brit Lower and Zach Cherry round out a tight-knit team of office workers who must work together to fight their employer.
At its core, Severance is about office culture taken to its extreme, and for people who work in offices today, that can resonate quite strongly. A watershed moment comes when the crew of the Macrodata Refinement finally reaches their quota. Not only are they treated to a waffle party, but a personalized message that comes in the form of a retro video game cutscene, almost like an ending to a classic Lucasarts game. It’s a strange and endearing scene, but it also left me with a sense of conflict.
For gamers, completing a video game involves many hours of learning the systems at work and overcoming the challenges within. The ending of a video game can often feel like the game is finally responding to you, praising you for your efforts and rewarding you with a cutscene that concludes your journey. That’s great and all, but on the darker side, Lumon’s version also represents a commentary on how often companies reward their employees for their efforts with minor perks and hollow praise.
The use of a classic video game was deliberate and perfectly matched the tone Severance was going for.
“I sent Ben Stiller a clip of King’s Quest V, my favorite game growing up. And I was like, ‘That’s kind of what I see,'” Erickson said. “There was this retro-futuristic aspect to the scripts when I originally wrote it, but I really liked that aesthetic.”
Erickson continues, “But that kind of answer wasn’t enough for Ben, who is very meticulous about detail and logic. He was really open to creating a world that was half real and half not, but he had to at least have your own. logic in itself. There’s this feeling that you’re in this soup of time and space that could be anywhere and anytime. And so it was scary and fun to get in in the heads of these corporate overlords.
Severance reaches a major turning point in the season finale. Basically, the work crew sees the outside world for the first time, confronted with the reality of who their “outie” counterparts really are. It was a perfect way to end the season, and I’m excited to see where the story could go next. However, it turns out the finale wasn’t the ending Erickson originally had in mind.
“So it’s funny, when we were writing the season, there was going to be another episode after [the finale]“, Says Erickson. “We said it was the penultimate episode and maybe come and show the ramifications of this one. But after talking about it, I think it was Ben who said, “I think that’s it.” It’s the end of the season. In the end, we were all of one mind.”
I’m not usually a fan of cliffhangers, but the lack of total closure and sense of mystery we have after the finale left me more intrigued than upset. There’s still a lot we don’t know about Lumon. What are these numbers sorted by the macro data department? What’s next for innies back in the office?
I can see Severance expanding its reach even further in the next season, but hopefully it doesn’t go too far. The show is at its best when it sticks to the uncomfortable nature of extended office work and the amount of weird, off-putting behavior we subject ourselves to on 9 to 5. I really enjoyed Severance for the how he accepted being weird, but also for his reality.
Severance Season 1 is available now on Apple TV Plus.
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