The foibles of the workplace used to be the stuff of great American TV comedy. But in “Severance,” nobody’s laughing anymore (unless it’s in a really unsettling way).
The critically lauded Apple TV+ sci-fi thriller, renewed for a second season, revolves around Adam Scott’s character, Mark, who’s undergone a procedure called “severance” at his company, Lumon Industries. His brain has been altered with an implant that renders him unable to remember what happens during the workday, halving him into what the characters call an “innie” office worker, and an “outie” at home.
Many of the show’s trappings are deeply familiar: A small team of co-workers toils away at their cubicle desks, never quite knowing what it is they’re doing, and occasionally intersecting with people in other departments. But where other series have mined bland office-life minutiae for laughs, “Severance” is disorienting and surreal, set to a simple four-chord theme (and one hell of an earworm) that evokes dread and horror. And for good reason: The more we see of Lumon, the more nefarious its mysterious mission seems.
In one of the show’s most chilling scenes, Helly (Britt Lower), the new severed recruit who’s repeatedly tried to leave — including by threatening to cut her own fingers off with a paper cutter — watches a video from her “outie” telling her she’s not allowed to quit.
“I am a person. You are not,” outie Helly tells her innie. Bizarre intracompany artwork turns up, depicting what appears to be one department trying to eat another one. And the company’s “break room” is a darkly comic play on the term, with employees sent there for long, torturous confessional sessions. Of course, all of this is forgotten once severed workers leave the building.
A dystopian workplace in which employees sign away all rights to their 9-to-5 brains? It’s the logical endpoint of the TV office family, and a surreally perfect complement to the current wave of resistance to resuming office life as usual. In this era of mass resignations, union strikes and work-from-home revolts, it’s truly an uncannily well-calibrated series debut.
Could “Severance” creator Dan Erickson really have had his finger this firmly on the pulse of the post-pandemic American workplace?
Not entirely — director Ben Stiller reportedly got the script in 2016, several years before the pandemic would wreak havoc on office work and prove, indisputably, that many people are perfectly capable of doing their jobs from home. But cultural queasiness about the effects of spending so much time in the office was already well underway then.
One 2014 study found that American workers were much more likely than people in other countries to work after they got home from the office, put in excess hours on the job, and not use the pathetically small amount of vacation days they were given (these stats reflected years of Republican lawmakers taking away workers’ rights and giving more power to employers).
Then came the pandemic, which crumbled the already-shaky foundation of office work. Workers were initially forced to work at home — and they discovered they liked it there. One survey found that 81% percent of office workers didn’t want to go back to full-time external work.
Pop culture, ever a mirror for our real lives, reflected this growing darkness.
Traditionally, on American TV, the workplace was a safe space. Both in sitcoms and dramas, the job was where you built a life, made lifelong friends, and even fell in love. Even at its most dysfunctional, the TV workplace was, until recently, a reflection and amplification of the American dream. The job had purpose; the people were chosen family.
In an essay about the end of “The Office,” author Michelle Dean observes that “classic workplace sitcoms — ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ‘M*A*S*H,’ ‘Night Court’ — usually had some kind of meaningful work as the backdrop, accomplishing something important on the side of all their jokes. Or else, as in sitcoms like ‘Designing Women’ or ‘Newhart,’ the main characters were at the very least all really good friends, engaged in some kind of collective endeavor.”
In contrast, the more recent standard-bearer for workplace shows, the American version of “The Office,” began to dwell more on the meaninglessness of the job and the often-tedious obligatory time spent there. Still, it filtered those observations through often-genius humor — and it’s still one of the most popular sitcoms ever.
But the past two years have exposed the real emptiness at the heart of much of office culture. And “Severance” is a delicious upending of the workplace trope, one in which office life is very literally a waking nightmare. The fact that it stars Adam Scott, who played the lovable Ben Wyatt on the government-office sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” is icing on the cake (or perhaps, the waffle).
Conversely, though, the dystopian world of “Severance” simultaneously presents a sort of perverse fantasy about work-life boundaries, doesn’t it? Mark S. and his co-workers don’t have to worry about taking their work home with them, as their altered brains won’t allow it. When they clock out, that’s it, and their home lives are their own. For the significant number of workers who continue doing their jobs at night and on weekends, the Lumon experience, ghoulish as it is, might actually be an improvement.