Spoilers forgot their lines.
There’s a lot that goes into creating a psychological thriller. Casting. Lighting. Camera angles. Sets. And I have to say, that doesn’t mean it has to look expensive or overly done. It works better if it looks sparse, trivial and just a little standoff-ish to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand. This is probably the first show I’m seriously watching episode to episode in a long time. At only a few episodes in, this series is strongly promising.
Severance (2022) is created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. The Macrodata Refinement division (MDR) is one of many in Lumon Industries that adheres to the “severance” program. The people who join accept to undergo a procedure by which their conscious memory is split in two identities: Their regular, natural life and one that only takes place while they are at work. Mark Scout (Adam Scott) is adapting to his new position as head of MDR after the sudden departure of one of his co-workers, Petey (Yul Vazquez). He’s also responsible for training new employee Helly (Brill Lower), who has just joined the program and has strong objections adjusting to her life as a “severed” worker. Along for the ride are co-workers Dylan (Zach Cherry) and Irving (John Turturro). They all work under the watchful eye of their supervisor, Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman) and their boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette).
The environment is rather minimalistic, mostly happening on the severed floor. Lumon Industries is an ominous presence, where employees are strongly encouraged to do things by the book in an overbearing patronizing tone. Although we mostly follow Mark, who is mostly trying to do his job, our introductory character is Helly. She’s not happy with her current situation, and challenging the boundaries at every turn. Through her initial attempts we see the company is quick and harsh in punishing insubordination, making the working environment feel almost dystopian.
Lumon’s company policy is a religion, with devout followers such as Irving quoting the teachings of legendary founder Kier as if they were bible passages. Dylan is more of a mercenary, trying to game the system to gain as much perks as possible and fiercely dismissive of other divisions. Milchick supervises the team as an overbearing parent, acting friendly but policing both their actions and their motives. The company’s word is the law and must be obeyed, revered and even feared.
I can’t quite explain why it works, but it does. Initially, we’re given a very narrow window into Lumon and slowly discover Mark’s life outside work. He’s grieving his wife and still adjusting to life. On the other hand, the severance program draws strong criticism with opposing movements campaigning to stop it. This adds a political angle where we see Mark easily becoming the outsider in social situations. To add more conflict, Mark on the outside receives an unexpected visitor from a stranger who claims to be former co-worker Petey.
Extremely recommended so far, specially for fans of psychological thrillers. It’s a risk, with only so many episodes watched. I hope the writing is as good going forward, and there’s a plan (a slow one) to a satisfying finale. Whether this show is meant to last more than one season is not as important as a great first run. The characters are engaging and we’ve all had a job that makes us feel trapped. Definitely worth a watch and fingers crossed it remains just as good or even better.
That will do for now.