When I say it took me a few episodes to get into a show, it usually means that the show itself needed a few episodes to figure its world out before it was able to draw me into it. When I say that about “Severance,” though, it’s because the beginning of the show’s first season is as unnerving as it is bleak. The first three episodes create a world both completely unlike ours and yet terrifyingly similar enough to prove jarring in a way that became hard to shake between viewings. (It doesn’t help that these episodes, two of which drop Feb. 18 on Apple TV Plus before the show shifts to a weekly release schedule, are also the show’s longest, at a solid hour each.)
Suffice it to say, sitting down to watch this show isn’t an especially relaxing experience. By the end of its 9-episode first season, though, “Severance” becomes the best kind of TV surprise: one that rewards early patience with a real knockout of a back half.
From creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller, “Severance” hinges on a fictional procedure that makes it possible for employees of a mysterious conglomerate to wholly separate their corporate lives from their personal lives. Widower Mark (Adam Scott) has had a chip in his head for two years that allows him to step into his workplace’s elevator and essentially black out for all eight hours he’s there, giving him what he considers, at first, to be the gift of getting to spend less time actively grieving his wife. Electing to wipe one’s memory to escape it is an extreme measure, but not one totally unfamiliar to science fiction (like, say, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the 2004 Charlie Kaufman film that feels of a piece with this show, and not just because the nefarious company carrying out the procedure is called “Lacuna” to “Severance”‘s “Lumen.”) Then there’s the unavoidable fact that in our current reality, which has seen millions walk away from jobs that ask too much of them for too little in return, it’s easy to understand why being able to “sever” oneself from work so definitively could be this tempting. If you could get paid to work but never actually have to feel the weight of work, would you?
While the first couple of episodes hammer home the existential dread of corporate drudgery, the series eventually splinters from this one thread — which is a relief, given its overwhelmingly dreary ennui — to become several psychological thrillers at once. Being a Lumen employee not only means turning your consciousness off during work, but essentially turning another one on in the meantime. Mark’s blissful ignorance of his workday when outside the Lumen building is a double-edged sword that leaves his corporate drone self (i.e. his “Innie”) essentially trapped inside. The Mark who stares at a screen of inscrutable numbers all day has no working knowledge of his life or the world beyond Lumen’s walls. All he knows is that his job is to “refine” data and ask no questions, or else.
As directed with pointed precision by Stiller, the contrast between the drab “real” world and Lumen’s discomfiting blend of midcentury modern and futuristic production design is downright eerie. No matter which version of him we’re following, Mark’s stuck in a horror movie with no escape hatch in sight — not least because both versions of him, unbeknownst to the other, is being closely watched by his Lumen boss (played to simmering, terrifying perfection by Patricia Arquette). For “Innie” Mark, realizing this truth takes the sudden disappearance of his best work friend, Petey (Yul Vasquez, brutally effective), and new hire Helly (Britt Lower, better with every episode), who defies Lumen’s every bland adage at every chance she gets. For “Outtie” Mark, it’s almost trickier for him to find any clarity through his oppressive fog of apathy and grief. Soon enough, though, they both get on board with the idea that maybe, just maybe, a brain implant that “severs” your consciousness in half for the sake of a corporation might not be a completely benign procedure. At this crucial point, “Severance” gains a sharper focus that drives it forward with a propulsive energy that doesn’t let up until the finale’s last shock of a cliffhanger (which is, without spoiling a thing, big and bold enough to suggest that the writers are confident that a second season will be on its way sooner rather than later).
The stylized direction, production design, and off-kilter score (by composer Theodore Shapiro) are the quickest ways in to the particular strangeness of “Severance.” What really sells and makes it truly immersive, however, is what the cast brings to the increasingly demanding scripts. Arquette, as aforementioned, handles her balancing act of a character with aplomb, but also gets a consistent boost from Tramell Tillman’s scene-stealing turn as her righthand man and watchful Lumen eye. Scott, an actor gifted with both keen dramatic sensibilities and impeccable comic timing, is the perfect choice to anchor the series as two different permutations of the same person. And like Arquette, Scott is also surrounded by actors like Lower, Christopher Walken, Jen Tullock, Dichen Lachmann, Zach Cherry, and an especially good John Turturro, who each elevate his smart performance with their own. Even when the many twists and turns appear contradictory or the show threatens to disappear inside its own complicating mythology, “Severance” quickly proves that it’s just as motivated as its characters to get from the outside of its mysteries to their more harrowing, truthful insides.
“Severance” premieres Friday, Feb. 18 on Apple TV Plus.