‘Severance’ Review: Adam Scott’s Corporate Job Literally Splits Him in Two in Eerie Apple TV+ Series

Ben Stiller directs most of the episodes in the first season of this absorbing high-concept mystery thriller

"Severance" (Apple TV+)
Apple TV+

While a movie like “Office Space” or a show like “The Office” might be the go-to pop culture reference point when it comes to the monotony and soul-sucking nature of an office workplace — after all, they have “office” in the titles — there is something to be said just going full tilt into the metaphor and depicting the corporate world as Hell. ABC’s short-lived “Better Off Ted” did so in an irreverent way, while never quite backing down from the fact that its Veridian Dynamics was an evil, evil place. USA Network’s “Mr. Robot” had more to say beyond its depiction of E-Corp (aka “Evil Corp”), but what it had to say about corporate culture was on the ball. And Comedy Central’s twistedly pointed “Corporate” explored the drudgery of a multinational corporation called Hampton DeVille with evil embedded in the name.

AppleTV+’s “Severance” falls into the same category, this time as a tense mystery/thriller that raises just as many questions as it answers (in a good way) throughout its stellar nine-episode first season. Created by Dan Erickson, the series follows a team at Lumon Industries — Mark (Adam Scott), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro) and Helly (Britt Lower) — who have undergone “severance,” a surgical procedure that divides their memories between their work and personal lives.

Lumon workers’ home (or “outtie”) lives are completely severed from their work (or “innie”) lives; all it takes is one elevator ride either down or up to decide which version of the person will emerge. But as the series makes very clear, the “outies” are truly in the driver’s seat as the primary personality; “innies” don’t even know what a weekend is like, as ending the day and going up the elevator and starting another day and going down the elevator all feel like a second of time has passed for them. When the series begins, Mark’s best friend at work, Petey (Yul Vazquez) has suddenly been let go — forcing Mark to step up to the role of new chief of the Macrodata Refinement (MDR) department — and Petey’s new replacement, Helly, struggles to get used to her new life as an “innie.”

From there, questions arise. What does the MDR department of Lumon do? What would drive someone to willingly decide to be severed? Should the “innie” and “outie” have an equal choice in the matter? Given the show’s premise, it’s clear from the outset that Lumon is evil; but what corporation technically isn’t? While the severance aspect of the company is definitely on the forefront and a major topic of conversation in this series’ world, what else is Lumon up to? Just how deep does the rabbit hole go?

Right off the bat, the best way to describe “Severance” is eerie. Ben Stiller serves as an executive producer and the main director of the series, directing the first three and the last three episodes of the first season, and he sets the tone for both the show and its world. (Irish filmmaker Aoife Mcardle helms the middle three episodes.) As “Severance” features what seems like endless hallways, one of Stiller’s first major decisions is to make the audience learn to live with that, in one very long tracking shot of Mark heading into the office. In the “innie” world, there is so much sterileness to the office setting that it truly does feel like Mark and his team are stuck in Hell. A monochromatic, upsettingly symmetrical version of Hell.

And the opening scene of the pilot feels like a horror movie — which is nothing compared to the series’ disconcerting opening credits — as the audience is thrust right into this world with just as much confusion and worry as the first character we meet. But “Severance” works because it’s not just one thing; as the season progresses, that eeriness is also met with quirkiness, in a “Twin Peaks,” uncanny valley sort of way. That combination helps center “Severance” and make fun to watch — along with the critical casting of the core four characters, in addition to other Lumon players like Ms. Cobel (Patricia Arquette), Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman), Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman) and Burt (Christopher Walken) — as well as Mark’s “outie” support system, his sister Devon (Jen Tullock) and blowhard brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus). (Tillman and Lachman really nail the uncanny valley aspect of it all.)

These actors have proven themselves capable in both comedy and drama, and they never play either aspect too big in this one. (Arquette absolutely chews the scenery throughout the entire season, but every moment is magnificent.) The “innies” have an earnestness and naivete that comes from not having the life experiences of their “outie” versions, but “Severance” never lets that border on childlike stupidity. In fact, the series even jokes about Lumon’s approach to the severed personality characterization, as one character wonders if “innies” can even understand metaphors. (They can.) This is what makes the “innies” formidable characters whom the audience can root for in finding the truth: It’s not a matter of them slowly learning to be people and independent; they’re people who are just trying to be whole again, even if they can’t remember being whole.

“Severance” shares some similarities with Netflix’s one-season series “Living With Yourself,” with Scott and Paul Rudd essentially fill the same role in terms as leading men of a certain type. “Living With Yourself” featured actual cloning, making both versions of Rudd’s character two separate physical entities. “Severance,” on the other hand, has to reckon with Scott’s Mark existing in both “innie” and “outie” versions. The series explores the idea of whether the two count as different people, despite sharing one body, and it’s a discussion that is far more interesting than the ones “Living With Yourself” sparked. It’s also funnier, in an often uncomfortable, way. (“Severance” can get pretty dark, but it’s just as dark as the circumstances require it to be.)

And it can’t be understated just how clutch Scott is in this role, both as the broken “outie” Mark, who is barely hanging on in his personal life and as the “innie” Mark (or Mark S., as Lumon Industries refers to all its worker bees with the first name, last initial combo), who’s never known anything other than working in MDR for Lumon. Scott is able to play the former with a lack of light in his eyes and the latter with an artificial light that sets the tone for the other “outie”/”innie” dynamics in the series.

While an advancement of technology serves as the catalyst, “Severance” isn’t an anti-tech allegory. The story is more about questions of free will, faith, duality, sentience and consequences; technology may have allowed for severance to exist, but the people behind it are the true villains. The season answers a good number of the questions raised in the premiere, but it also leaves room to give fuller answers in future seasons. There’s also enough forward momentum that the show never seems like a nine-episode pilot.

Even with all the ingredients of cast and crew, it would be so easy to bungle a show this tricky and high-concept. But “Severance” succeeds with a structure that works both as a weekend binge as well as one that can be enjoyed in weekly installments. The opening scenes of each episode repeat just enough of what’s come before — often within a wholly different context — to serve as a refresher, while also providing a fluid way to enjoy in one extended watch-through.

“Severance” debuts on Apple TV+ on February 18.