Severance Is All Bark And No Belko

It seems the trending show of the week is Severance, an Apple TV+ original starring Adam Scott. The show is about a company that severs its employees’ memories, so that they have one set of memories at home, and another set at the office. In other words, it’s a profound, trenchant, and completely of-the-moment social commentary that makes every online reviewer feel tingly and smart.

Except it’s not. Because lots of white-collar workers (ostensibly the show’s audience) are now working from home. Which, if anything, is the opposite of the show’s premise. Now more than ever, we’re actually merging our work and life, not separating them. The concept is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it feels decidedly pre-Covid.

Which makes me wonder… is this supposed to be a nostalgia trip? Longing for the days when people actually had a double life that they split between the office and their homes? Is it supposed to help people cope, now that more businesses are asking workers to return to the office (even though plenty have shifted to a permanent WFH setup)? As somebody who is now full-time WFH, the central conceit of the show feels outdated.

Not to mention another of the show’s commentaries, which is on how difficult it is for employees to quit. Once again, this feels remarkably out of touch. Americans are quitting their jobs at higher rates than ever before (it’s being called The Great Resignation, a term I assume the showrunners haven’t heard, which is shocking). Again, I understand the commentary – certainly companies want you to stick around. But given how many people are quitting despite their company’s wishes, it feels more relevant to the pre-Covid era.

Oh wait… They went into production in 2019. Makes sense now.

You’re probably thinking, ‘Jaden, you’re being too harsh. This show is the freshest high-concept sci-fi series since Black Mirror, and the most biting satire of corporate America since The Office.’ Let’s debunk both of those claims.

First, the ‘high concept’ claim. Arguably, the most high-concept sci-fi series since Black Mirror is Devs. Severance is certainly not the first. Moreover, Severance really only works as a concept. It doesn’t work as an actual show. It’s the sort of premise that you’d read a think piece about, not one that you can build a compelling story around.

Weirdly enough, I think the creators know this. In the first episode, we’re treated to a spectacularly cringe-worthy conversation about the show’s concept. The characters literally talk about the implications of separating your memories and whether it’s moral, ethical, etc. It’s like the dinner scene from The Purge, but the difference is, they do not proceed to kill each other (unlike, say, The Belko Experiment, a workplace satire that is brutally and hilariously over-the-top).

In other words, the show has a great premise (albeit an outdated one). But it’s just that – a premise, one which doesn’t lend itself to deeper drama. Your premise should build tension, it should create its own story. As an example: Black Mirror succeeds because each premise lends itself to insane drama. Whether it’s being able to record your whole life, being able to resurrect a loved one as a robot, or being chased by a weaponized AI, the concepts make for inherently intense stories.

In contrast… What’s so intense about having your memories separated? It’s trippy, sure, but let’s consider where the story can go from there. Maybe you run into a co-worker outside of work, and you don’t realize it. Okay, well that happens in the first episode, and it’s not remotely dramatic for the characters, because they have no way of knowing that this person is a co-worker. Thus, the drama feels forced – we’re supposed to think this is a mind-blowing twist (OMG do you get it, they have no memory of each other, WOW). But the character’s minds aren’t blown, so why should ours be?

The only other interesting direction you can take the story is: we have the employees do illegal things at work, things we don’t want them to remember afterward. But so far, their work life is dull. No murder, no sex, no drugs, no secret government contracts, no predicting the future. So… Why sever their memories? They should at least tease some darker motives.

In all fairness, I’ve only sat through one and a half episodes, so maybe the show will get darker. But in my defense, at this point in Squid Game, hundreds of people had been massacred in a game of Red Light, Green Light. And at this point in Devs, a man had lit himself on fire. I’m not going to waste time on a premise without some kind (any kind) of payoff beyond a co-worker telling Adam Scott that the company is bad.

Second: the claim that it’s good satire. I’ll admit, I had high hopes from the opening scene. It’s reminiscent of The Stanley Parable, Portal or Superliminal, with a generically corporate aesthetic, a voice on an intercom telling you not to panic, and moderately annoying elevator music looping in the background. So at least initially, the satire claim holds.

Unfortunately, unlike those games, it doesn’t take the plot in an interesting direction, and the satire is ultimately hit-or-miss. A character says that it feels like Friday just ended, and it’s already Monday. Well yes, that is literally the consequence of having a work-specific set of memories. Was the whole series a setup for that joke? Meh.

The only joke that really landed for me was when a new hire says ‘our job is to scroll through the data and look for numbers that are scary?’ That made me chuckle. But by building an aesthetic of a company that’s bland and generic, the jokes feel… bland and generic. I’m a huge fan of satirizing corporate America – one of my favorite films is American Psycho, which is deliriously over-the-top, as satire should be. Unfortunately, Severance is underwhelming in that regard.

In the end, even with a fine cast, fine production quality, and what I’m sure will become a more twisted mystery, this is just too bland to be watchable. I look forward to reading the plot synopsis once all the episodes are released. Until then, I’ll probably just watch… something else. Maybe Maniac. Now that’s good satire.

Rating: 3.4/10

One last note: at least we have this phenomenally surreal introduction that looks like a Cyriak animation. One of the few highlights of the show.