In ‘Severance,’ work-life balance comes at compelling cost

photo from Severance
Apple TV/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.0/5.0

There’s a slew of shows and films that don’t bother much with the character’s work life. Those creators love domestic drama — all those wild, surprising parts of their characters’ lives. Sometimes occupation informs that drama, but what, actually, happens at work? “Severance,” Ben Stiller’s directorial foray into episodic television, makes a refreshing series out of that stale question. 

It’s not a show to answer that question straight up. Things are, of course, not as they seem: Employees across the country have entered into severance, which the show depicts as a legal surgery that takes the idea of work-life balance to its extreme. 

In a complex, rather gross procedure — slicing open the skull and inserting a small chip deep into the brain — one brain is split into two minds. One is only present for work, the other only knows home. It purports balance, if balance is one foot in the upside-down, the other in sanity. 

Corporations across the show’s fictional America exalt this procedure to employees. What they don’t say — the fine print — is that the procedure isn’t so great for the “innie,” the half permanently stuck at work. 

“Severance” follows a group of four severed employees of Lumon, a mysterious corporation where the innies know only white walls and a maze of subterranean hallways. The job’s ramifications are a mystery, but the specifics entail picking out “scary” numbers from a busy screen. “You’ll know it when you see it,” Dylan (Zach Cherry) tells Helly (Britt Lower), a new employee in the department, which is aptly titled macro data refinement. 

Undergoing the procedure involves signing away the innie’s rights to their employer. Mark (Adam Scott), whom the show follows between his work and home lives, tells Helly it’s a lot to get used to. Mark is the new boss in town; his former boss, and his innie’s best friend, Petey (Yul Vazquez) left work abruptly. The real story, as Petey explains it to Mark’s outtie, is that Petey was “reintegrated,” his mind stitched back together, and Mark’s can be too. 

Mark tells himself he likes being severed, for a bit. He thinks it got him through his wife’s death, even though he falls asleep on the couch most nights. But the seeds of doubt have been planted, some of which “Severance” explores better than others. The show oscillates between work and home, juggling a department of four as it works through a season that starts a slow-burn on ethical questions for future seasons to fill out. 

Some of its concerns feel rushed. Whether it’s morally right for an innie to exist at all comes across as a clear “no,” but the pivots in the story’s emotional terrain sometimes don’t carry their weight. “Severance” holds its characters at an emotional remove, focusing — as a corporation might — on the causes and effects without diving into its characters’ mental states. They’re bleak, naturally, but the show’s bleakness is made up of retro-minimalist design and boring suits. Occasionally, we get a flash of brilliance from Scott’s pursed lips, or the intensity of Lower’s performance, but the camera lets go of the action every now and then. 

Perhaps viewers are supposed to think of Apple (the parent company of the show’s streaming service) as they watch. The rigidity of Lumon’s corporate culture is what propels its characters to spin out, resist. The more the fist tightens, the more the office fights back. But without an irritant, without Helly, who foists change on the corporation, everything’s hunky-dory. Neat marketing and easy solutions might not be so clean after all.

Dominic Marziali covers television. Contact him at [email protected].