Against the void of the black screen, a muffled voice asks: “Who are you?”
This is the opening line and driving question of Apple TV+’s new series “Severance.” In a sea of high-concept science fiction series on the market right now, “Severance” stands alone in its deep commitments to engaging with challenging philosophical questions, compelling storytelling, empathic performances, and stunning visuals.
In a harsh, timeless world not too dissimilar from our own, megacorporation Lumon Industries offers its employees the opportunity to escape. By undergoing the procedure commonly known as Severance, employees bifurcate their personal and professional lives, effectively severing their home consciousness from their work consciousness.
The series follows Mark S. (Adam Scott) and his coworkers on the lowest level Severed floor. Here, Mark can leave his depressed “outie” self, who struggles to cope with the grief of losing his wife, becoming instead his “innie” self who is free to focus on the important but mysterious work of Macro Data Refinement, sorting numbers by their respective emotional qualities. Rule-oriented Irving B. (John Turturro) praises the work as all in service to the highly revered Lumon founder, Kier, while Dylan G. (Zach Cherry) zealously works towards his goal of receiving the coveted Waffle Party. When obstinate Helly R. (Britt Lower) joins the team to replace Mark S.’s best friend, Petey (Yul Vazquez), who quits without any warning, the team is forced to reevaluate their work and their own complete beings.
The complex production design and visually arresting cinematography render the outie world of “Severance” both cold and austere and the innie world colorful and alluring. This burbling dualism is further explored through composer Theodore Shapiro’s intense, eerie score.
While removed, the whole integrating world of “Severance” feels entirely lived in due in large part to the expansive world-building and grounded performances. Notable are the performances of Scott, who plays Mark S. with a captivating sense of earnestness, and Patricia Arquette, who captures the intensity of Mark S.’s boss, Ms. Covel. Another stand-out performance was Tramell Tillman who plays Mark S.’s immediate supervisor, Mr. Milchick, and effectively toes the line of being intimidating and humorous.
Episode by episode, the viewer delves further into the many multi-layered mysteries of the show. Akin to the earlier seasons of “Lost,” “Severance” is riddled with plot twists as well as powerful and thought-provoking religious overtones. The only sticking issue of the show is the pacing, which is relatively slow in the first three episodes. Viewers who continue are well rewarded, as the remaining six episodes pick up rapidly, culminating in one of the most suspenseful and thrilling TV season finales of recent years.
Enhanced by rich world-building and cut throughout with occasional absurdist humor, the show’s script and direction never lose sight of these deep philosophical undercurrents — imploring us, the viewers, to engage and think critically about the entangled fundamental questions of personal identity.
In a Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion, show-creator Dan Erickson described the origins of the show. Nearly a decade ago, Erickson found himself wishing in vain that he could blink and miss the next eight hours of his corporate job — it’s “a scary thing to catch yourself wishing for less time on this precious earth.” This weird impulse to disassociate from ourselves and our lives, as well as the people who might cave to such a temptation if given the ability, became the motivating forces behind the script. Co-director Ben Stiller — yes, that Ben Stiller of “Zoolander,” “Meet the Fockers,” “Night of Museum,” and other fame — recalled himself being immediately drawn to the script when it arrived at his production company, captivated by the questions of what makes up our personhood.
Without the explicit intention of the show’s creators, “Severance” came at a serendipitous time: when many people in the face of pandemic conditions reflected on how their careers, passions, and desires for social impact did or didn’t align.
“Severance” challenges us to be not only passive viewers but active philosophers. Inviting us into the philosophy of mind space to answer the central question of “Who am I?” the characterization question. What is necessary and sufficient for a person to be the same person? Their body? Their consciousness? Their memories? What constitutes the multiple facets of our personal identity, and how should we reconcile them?
The spelling of actor John Turturro’s last name was corrected on Nov. 6.