It’s no secret that remakes and series based on true stories dominate modern television: No beloved ‘90s show or shocking news story from recent years is safe from the greedy grasp of television executives. And while these shows can turn out to be great works in their own right, they lack novelty. Apple TV +’ new series “Severance,” which completed its first season on April 8, faces no such problem and serves as a convincing argument for the merits of completely original content. This gripping science fiction thriller is one of television’s most ingenious, visually stunning, and well-rounded new series.
“Severance” takes place in an alternate universe where regular humans who work for Lumon Industries, a menacing tech company, can decide to “sever” their work and home lives by having a computer chip implanted in their brains. By doing this, these people are unable to access any of their memories from home while at work and vice versa. The premise reads much like an episode of “Black Mirror,” but “Severance” far exceeds this predecessor by allowing its characters and world to develop over the course of an entire season.
Prior to even noticing the show’s masterful performances, viewers will most likely be struck by its unique set design. The show’s creators toss the image of the modern American office out the window, opting instead for an underground complex of large and mostly empty green-carpeted rooms connected by a maze of stark white hallways. This minimalist design, combined with the retro technology that characters use to do strangely mundane work, adds a sinister layer to every on-screen workday: If this company has the technology to sever thoughts, why does the office look so old-fashioned? Where do all the hallways lead to? All of these questions and more will constantly unsettle viewers, never allowing them to believe Lumon’s idyllic facade.
“Severance”’s main protagonist is Mark Scout, played by Adam Scott of “Parks and Recreation” fame. While Scott occasionally delivers some wry remarks reminiscent of a network sitcom, he mainly displays his impressive dramatic chops in what is easily his most impressive performance to date. The slow transformation in his facial expressions and body language from peppy corporate shill to concerned office deviant over the course of Season One is a marvel to watch. Scott even manages to manipulate the tenor of his character’s voice, to the point where there is a noticeable difference between his meek office “innie” and sarcastic home “outie.” Essentially, Scott manages to play two completely different characters while occupying the same exact body, a truly impressive feat.
Besides Scott, “Severance” also has some heavy-hitting talent in Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, and Christopher Walken. All three acting veterans turn out amazing performances, with Arquette’s mix of soft-spokenness and unbridled aggression making her a spine-chilling villain. Turturro, however, is the stand-out of the bunch as the fiercely obedient Irving. While his character is a man of few words, Turturro still manages to embody Irving’s internal struggles and victories in a way that will make viewers gravitate toward him. Plus, he imbues his budding relationship with Walken’s character with an impressively high level of tenderness and believability.
Lesser-known actors such as Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, and Tramell Tillman round out this solid ensemble with their own unforgettable flourishes. Much of “Severance’s” brilliance lies in its ability to keep viewers hooked with its mysterious, multi-layered plotline while at the same time never failing to present an array of three-dimensional characters whom the audience can relate to and adore.
In the technical realm, “Severance” continues to deliver on all fronts. Cinematographers Jessica Lee Gagné’s and Matt Mitchell’s camerawork is especially notable, with long and smooth tracking shots occasionally being interrupted by jarring tremors at particularly suspenseful moments. The difference in lighting between the worlds of home and work — with the former being gloomy and the latter oppressively bright — is yet another clever way the show immerses viewers in the disorienting severed experience. These creative decisions are often guided by the steady hand of Ben Stiller, who directed six episodes of the series.
Whether or not viewers fancy themselves fans of science fiction, “Severance” will not disappoint. There’s something for every type of fan, from dry workplace humor to the unsolvable question of Lumon’s greater purpose (which somehow involves baby goats?). All of this culminates in one of the more fascinating, stomach-turning, and gasp-inducing season finales in recent memory.
So for every person who spends their days at work watching the clock and wishing they could skip forward to their time at home, “Severance” relays a terrifying warning: Be careful what you wish for.