How do you maintain your work/life balance? That has been a question many of us have grappled with over the past two years while working from home during the pandemic. There's a lot more out of hours work happening, expectations of presentee-ism higher than before, fewer sick days taken, and a general sense of being always-available. After all, without a commute to the office, working is only a power button, or (worse yet) a glance at your phone, away.
New Apple TV+ series Severance takes that idea and runs with it. It proposes a world where some workers engage in the most extreme form of establishing a work/life balance: they literally severe their minds in two. A person can leave home in the morning, but when they get home at night they have no memory at all of what they did during the day. All memories of the workday vanish.
There's two ways to consider this premise. The first would be the old-school TV way of dealing with it: Half-hour comedy where not remembering your work day leads to crazy shenanigans. Severance leans heavily into prestige streaming TV possibilities with this - it takes the concept and runs with it into a weird horror funhouse of possibilities, only it strips the fun out as you, the audience, are left to grapple with not just the tangible ramifications of this, but also the philosophical nightmare that this yields.
The version of you that gets to go to work each day and come home with no memory of spreadsheets or Teri from HR? That person is living a great life. But the version of you that is at work all day, every day with no reprieve from that? That's sentencing a person to hell. Obviously, I'm not referring to my own workplace. That place is an absolute dream to experience day in, day out. I'm talking about other workplaces... *tugs collar*
And that's what Severance is exploring. Adam Scott plays Mark, a member of a four person team who has signed up for this kind of workplace at Lumon Industries (seemingly a stand-in for companies like Amazon, Alphabet, Berkshire Hathaway - they may as well just call it Veridian Dynamics). Only making the situation stranger, the work they are doing is difficult to explain and comprehend to the point where even the team don't quite understand what they are doing all day at their computer terminals - it has something to do with data recontextualised in a Mindsweeper sort of interface. There seems to be some logic to it. Maybe. probably.
Out of work, Mark is very happy with his decision to break that part of his day away. In the first two episodes, you'll see him brush away the ethical issues of the procedure with friends at a dinner party, but you also see him getting hostile at protestors on the street who are against it. Within the workplace, however, you start to really get a sense as to the horrendous practicalities that result from the mind fracture.
For starters, staff in the workplace don't know what is taking place out in the world. They are left to devise theories, some concerned about a possible post-apocalypse. After all, why else would someone want to do what they are doing? With staff prevented from even leaving the building with notes to themselves, it means employees can't express job dissatisfaction or poor working conditions - that then means people are quite literally working the same dead end jobs for years and years. It also impacts on workplace friendships, which are even more artificial than those in reality. After all, it's not like anyone is catching up for after-work beers and making genuine connections.
Severance makes its message very clear: the best interests of the employee and that of the company they work for very rarely align.
The series is from writer-creator Dan Erickson and brought to the screen by director Ben Stiller who does a great job at extracting the dark horror that comes from the existentialist dread that exists within an office environment. At first the show seems like an odd-fit for Stiller, but if you can imagine the director of Cable Guy going off to do his own version of Office Space, suddenly it makes a whole lot more sense.
Severance does a great job of balancing the broad idea of the concept and the real world impact it would have on a person's life and psyche. While the show is broadly smart, thought-provoking television that will have you thinking as much about your own work experience as much as the soulless daily grind depicted in the show, the extremity of the show's premise does work against it. The bizarre oddity of the work conducted in the office at time over-burdens the premise of the show.
Severance is a great idea for a TV show, but, as is so often the case, I am left wondering whether something so high concept would have been better served as a movie. Two episodes into this and I feel like I get the point. Now it is just an exercise in sitting through the additional seven episodes of narrative.
Severance is streaming now on Apple TV+