When it was originally on: 2022-presnet
Original network: Apple TV+
Where you can stream it now: Apple TV+
Had I seen it before: Yes! I watched the whole season last year in the lead up to the Emmys.
What IMDb says: Mark leads a team of office workers whose memories have been surgically divided between their work and personal lives. When a mysterious colleague appears outside of work, it begins a journey to discover the truth about their jobs.
Why I picked it: I know it’s weird to think of one of the wealthiest companies on planet Earth as an “underdog” but I must admit I’m surprised at how quickly Apple has pulled a seat up to the big kids’ table at the proverbial Streaming Wars. Some of the best television comes out of these periods where there’s a new kid in town trying to put their name on the map and well… HBO had The Sopranos, Netflix had House of Cards, Hulu had The Handmaid’s Tale and Apple has Severance.
What’s particularly interesting to me is how last summer, right when I was thinking that Severance was just another “critical darling” i.e. something “normal people” didn’t like or at least hadn’t discovered yet, multiple people from all different walks of life urged me to watch Severance, a show I had previously labeled a “critical darling.”
What I liked: Severance is, first and foremost, an absolutely genius premise. I love sci-fi where the world is still basically the world I know, but with one strange sci-fi element. Enter “severance,” a procedure where people have their work memories permanently separated from the rest of their memories. People who undergo the procedure can’t remember anything about their jobs when they’re not at work, and when they are at work, they can’t remember anything about their outside lives, effectively creating two separate consciouses. To top it all off, this show arrived 2+ years after so many people started working from home due to the pandemic, and thus started rethinking where the lines between work and home should belong.
But of course, a genius premise does not automatically begat a genius pilot. The Severance one gets a lot right though. For one, it finds a lot of organic ways to dive into the specifics. We have a new character, Helly, who is just experiencing severed life for the first time. Through her, we learn that “severance” is voluntary, but irreversible, much to Work Helly’s dismay.
We also get an interesting dinner party scene with Mark, the only one we get to see at both work and at home. As Mark’s brother and his tactless friends interrogate him about severance, we get a sense of the larger world outside. It seems like everyone, not just Lumon employees, know about the concept of severance, and that it’s a controversial practice.
The dinner party scene serves another important purpose: humor. It would be quite easy for Severence to be a little too dark and dour for its own good, but I actually think the dry humor of this dinner party scene, as well as some of the patter between Mark and his sister, help to lighten the mood a bit. They also reveal that Mark has lost his wife, which helps answer the question “why would someone consent to being severed in the first place?” Are our other characters also people who didn’t like their personal lives, and Lumon exploited their discontentment for their own gain?
Lumon is another interesting part of this whole thing. There’s a great “show don’t tell” moment when Mark goes out to his car after leaving the “severed floor.” He finds a note saying that the scrape on his head is from dropping a projector on his head when we know it’s because Helly threw something at him. (I think it was a phone but to be honest I can’t remember.) So we know from this moment onward that Lumon is happy to lie to its employees as it sees fit. Our suspicions are later confirmed when Petey, Mark’s recently-departed boss, finds Mark on the outside, says he somehow managed to unsever himself, and tells Outside Mark that things are not good on the Inside.
We also know that Mark’s boss at Lumon is also his next door neighbor in real life. It’s unclear at this point if Ms. Cobel has also been severed or not, but either way its hard to feel like this is a coincidence. Lumon is definitely up to something, and it’s not something good. Depending on what direction the show takes, Severance could be a poignant exploration of how corporations brand policies as “employee wellness” when in reality those same policies are hurting employees for company gain. We also have virtually no idea what actual “work” Mark and his department or actually doing or what larger function it serves within the company, adding to the mystery box that is Lumon Industries.
What I didn’t like: So I think the premise is still at least intriguing enough to pique my curiosity, but I will say none of our characters stand out as particularly likable or interesting at this point. So much of the show is defined by the overall concept of severance and what Lumon may or may not be using it for, so we don’t really get much character definition outside of that. Mark is “a person who has been severed” and it’s hard for me to come up with much else beyond that. It’s only the pilot though, and for something so high concept, I don’t really blame the creators for choosing to sell the concept over the characters.
Do I want to watch Ep. 2: Yes! It’s an original concept that seems to be in capable hands.