Television

Severance Series Premiere Review: You Deserve A Break


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Dan Erickson and Ben Stiller have created a dystopia that hits a little too close to home.

Severance Season 1 Episode 1 is so bleak and despairing it sometimes feels masochistic to keep watching.

It’s clear that Severance has many fictional influences — 1984, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Black Mirror, The Twilight Zone, The Office, and Office Space all spring to mind — but the most devastating thing about it is how real it feels.

Mark at his desk - tall - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

Adam Scott and Ben Stiller are two big names in comedy. Severance is not a comedy but a dramatic, slow-burning thriller. Episode 1 is a meditative, existential buzzkill. Moments of humor exist, but they are quickly quashed.

The show is expertly crafted, mind you. Every shot is deliberate, crisp, and polished. It knows exactly what it wants to be, esthetically.

The fluorescent lights, white walls, forest green, ocean blue, and natural wood palette evoke an artificial landscape to replace the one these workers will never see.

Episode 1 is too long with pacing issues that almost seem like Stiller is trolling the audience into experiencing the monotony firsthand. There is a sequence where Mark walks down seemingly a seemingly endless hallway for 90 seconds.

It feels longer.

Mark on the desk - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

The episode could have easily trimmed a few minutes off the episode’s run-time from sequences like this, stretched-out pauses between dialogue, and Adam Scott staring blankly ahead.

I understand what Stiller is doing, but it’s just slightly too long. This discomfort works in comedy, but not here. These are all deliberate choices; they just don’t land the way it should.

Adam Scott creates an accurate portrayal of full-blown depression that’s uncomfortable to watch. Jen Tullock is a warm presence as his pregnant sister, Devon.

Their relationship is full of dry, familial in-jokes that accurately convey their bond and indicate how numb Mark has become after the death of his wife.

Disoriented - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

Episode 1 comes alive about 40 minutes into its 57-minute run time, when Devon and her partner Ricken host a “no-dinner” party, full of deep, intellectual conversations, bringing up the ethical conundrum of the severance procedure.

This sequence, again, felt a little too real, but at least it’s funny because here the show is punching up, not down. We all know pretentious people like this who talk a big game about worlds they know very little about.

These are absolutely the type of people who would believe that it’s prudent to give your baby all the beds it will sleep in as soon as it’s born (this was the one moment that made me laugh out loud).

Stiller beats us over the head with the Hell metaphor. Work is Hell. Literally? We’ll see.

Hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is whatever humans can imagine they can usually create.

Ms. Cobel

Ms. Cobel - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

There seem to be constant indications that these people are being punished for something or have made some sort of sacrifice, but that is at the heart of the show’s mystery, something that will no doubt be uncovered as the season progresses.

I think this is a good time to remind ourselves that things like deaths happen outside of here. Not here. A life at Lumon is protected from such things.

Mr. Milchick

It’s unclear what Lumon does, though it seems to cover a wide scope of services. The work of the Macrodata Department is very ambiguous. The numbers are scary, and they must be cleaned.

It’s hard to know what that means, even as Helly figures it out, but that’s probably the point.

Mr. Eagan casts a very Orwellian type of shadow.

Petey’s recording of Mark’s time in the break room suggests an old-fashioned way of speaking, passed down from the 1800s, when Lumon began. The break room is the place for punitive, nearly-religious confession, with Milchick as the calm, merciless priest.

Forgive me for the harm I have caused this world. None may atone for my actions but me, and only in me shall their stain move on. I am thankful to have been caught, my fall cut short by those with wizened hands. All I can be is sorry, and that is all that I am.

Mark

The Team - Severance Season 1 Episode 2

Severance Season 1 Episode 2 gets the ball rolling– literally and figuratively. The opening credits sequence alone is incredible, disturbing in its inventiveness.

Seeing the other side of Helly’s hallway/staircase scene not only explains what really happened but it indicates the intricacies of the severance procedure and how it works in practice.

Innie Helly can’t believe she would condemn part of herself to this life — but even with the knowledge that her life might end, she still wants to escape.

Watching the severance procedure itself is not for the squeamish. I kept thinking it would cut away, but it never did.

Helly: Sorry if I freak out on you a little.
Mr. Milchick: Don’t worry. I’m very excited to meet you.

Dylan - Severance Season 1 Episode 2

What we know from Petey is that the procedure is reversible, with side effects. The concept itself is a fascinating one to navigate, as the employees are essentially creating a new sentient consciousness to do the work for them, in a way.

The ethics of the severance procedure come up again in Episode 2, when Mark and a date (set up by his sister) come across some protestors who believe that severance is used to support damaging children’s brains.

Mark goes on the offense, but the truth is that he doesn’t know what he does, and he wants to, especially when Petey shows up telling him that not everything at Lumon is what it seems.

I also heard that if you’re severed you go to two separate hells, is that true?

Mark

Helly and Petey offer a good deal of hope and energy to Episode 2. One has just arrived, and one has just escaped. Both don’t agree with how Lumon does things.

Helly is bent on escape, even if it means her death, maybe because she can’t fully grasp the ramifications of her decision.

Melon Party - Severance Season 1 Episode 2

Episode 2 also gives us more of Tramell Tillman, who is spot-on as Mr. Milchick. Tillman has that genuine, corporate positivity charisma down. His level tone makes his threats all the more terrifying.

Milchick is a fascinating figure because he exists with the same consciousness in both worlds, communicating with both the Innies and the Outies (I really enjoy the use of these terms to describe the alternate selves).

If Ms. Cobel is Mrs. Selvig, why is she keeping such a close watch on Mark? How long have they been neighbors? Ms. Cobel hardly ever raises her voice at Mark, but she clearly hates him.

Mark: Are you mad at me?
Ms. Cobel: For the incompetence or the disobedience?

The dynamic between Mark and Mrs. Selvig, on the other hand, is quite lovely. What’s a waylaid recycling bin when you get cookies and bath bombs for your trouble? 

It seems deeply unfair that there are people in upper management who are unsevered, working with severed employees.

Irving - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

John Turturro is one of America’s great character actors, and he fits perfectly into this world as the pathetic Irving.

Hi, kids. What’s for dinner?

Irving

His wellness scene with Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) was so weird and sad. Maybe he does find it restorative, but it seems more like a punishment, serving as a reminder of all the things Innie Irving doesn’t have.

Severance brings up the questions of consciousness, culpability, and grief but doesn’t give any easy answers. Outie Mark and Petey seem to have their work cut out for them.

Severance means to skewer corporate culture with its faux camaraderie and meaningless team-building. It’s hard to tell if it has sympathy for its characters.

Over the shoulder - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

The real world is full of people working in jobs like this, their humanity stripped of them for eight hours a day. Severance often gives off a tone of judgment without offering a solution — a joke without a punchline.

There is only hopelessness with no escape. We’re all sentient cogs in an evil system that doesn’t value us.

Do we really need a television show in 2022 to tell us that? It could easily get too real for some people.

Some of us watch television to escape the monotony of corporate, entry- or mid-level office jobs. Why should we spend the precious hours we have of our “Outie” lives watching someone else trapped in the world we want to escape?

Mark and Helly - Severance Season 1 Episode 1

Episode 1 is just the set-up. Episode 2 creates enough mystery to suggest deep mythology behind this Lumon-based world that is intriguing enough to want to push through.

Maybe there is hope for Mark. If he escapes with his brain intact, if Helly can get free, if the Outies and Innies can amalgamate, maybe there is hope for us all. But I’ve heard stories like this before, and they don’t usually end happily.

Morbid curiosity urges us forward. There’s so much to know — the scary numbers, Burt in Optics and Design (hello Christopher Walken!), and the meaning behind it all.

What did you think of Severance? Will you keep watching?

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Mary Littlejohn is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.

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