Apple TV Plus drama “Severance” takes place in a world where people are able to undergo a medical procedure that gives them a literal work-life balance by implanting a chip in their brain that essentially splits them into two different conscious versions of themselves: an “Innie” who is awake only at work, and an “Outie” who is not aware of what they do from 9 to 5.
In order to make the sci-fi thriller’s central plot point believable enough that viewers could accept it as a reality of the life of Mark Scout (Adam Scott) and his severed colleagues at Lumon Industries and move on to the larger ethical implications of severance, director Ben Stiller and series creator Dan Erickson brought in a real-life neurosurgeon to make all of this look possible. And, according to the M.D., it’s not actually impossible at all, given enough time.
“My job, over a couple of years, was to leverage the things that exist in neurosurgery and neuroscience today with a knowledge of the brain, and what the brain could be capable to do in the future,” “Severance” consultant Dr. Vijay Agarwal told Variety of his years-long work on the show, which debuted Feb. 18.
“We are not at the stage yet, as depicted in the show, but I would say we are not far off. Right now, big academic centers, big neurosurgery, neuroscience centers are able to get micro catheters into the brain. They are able to adjust functions, like movement and tremor. They do that by putting electrical pulses into the middle of the brain and into the areas of the brain that are not functioning accurately. We’re actually able to put little catheters in the brain and hear single neurons firing. What the public may not be aware of is that we are much closer to this type of technology and this ability than we have ever been before.”
As an example, Agarwal cited the 2014 World Cup, which featured Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old paraplegic patient, as the person who did the ceremonial first kickoff using a robotic suit controlled by his brain: “All across the world, researchers are currently helping people who have trouble with movements, and a whole host of other neurological disorders.”
Agarwal, who is chief of the Bronx-based Montefiore Medical’s Division of Skull Base and Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery, was brought on to the Apple TV Plus show when his name was suggested to Stiller’s Red Hour Productions by a nurse manager. He ended up actually making his acting debut in Episode 2 as the neurosurgeon who implants the chip into Helly R.’s (Britt Lower) brain during her severance procedure at Lumon Industries.
“I told Ben Stiller, I’ve been training for that scene my whole life. I’ve been really method acting and preparing for the scene,” Agarwal joked. “Originally, I wasn’t scripted to be in the show. It was just a couple of years of consulting and really getting the scene authentic. But I think it really speaks to what Ben Stiller and what the production crew was trying to do, which was really maintain that sense of authenticity. And when I walked through the procedure with them, they realized that it was a little bit complex. And to maintain that sense of authenticity, they asked me during one of the brainstorming planning sessions if I wouldn’t mind being in the scene to do that procedure. And I jumped at the opportunity.”
According to Agarwal, “Severance” executive producers gave him “a little bit of creative liberty” in constructing the medical science behind the severance chip, but were “very adamant about it being as accurate as possible.” So here’s how it actually (but fictionally) works:
“The severance chip is implanted into important areas in the brain that control memory. There’s basically parts in the middle of each side of the brain that are really associated with memory, particularly on the dominant side, which is the left side for the majority of the population. So even down to the small details about where the chip was placed — you can see on the X-ray in Episode 2 where the chip is implanted, you get a rough estimate that it’s about in the middle of the brain and that those are the areas that control your memory. The team was very specific about targeting the areas of the brain that are most likely in about the next 10, 20, 100 years to be implicated in the ability to control memory.”