Near the beginning of Office Space, Ron Livingston’s character tells a hypnotherapist his woes. “Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it,” he says. “So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” He’d like to be hypnotized into forgetting everything about the office, so that he can “come home and think that I’d been fishing all day.”
The movie may be more than 20 years old, but its pitch-black perspective on the working world lives on in the Great Resignation, on r/antiwork, and in the lying flat movement. The new Apple TV+ series Severance, a grimly hilarious ode to the horrors of professional life, imagines a world in which the Office Space dream is reality: You can come home from work each day and forget everything about what went on in the office. The show is a stylish and endlessly thrilling, even if the world it depicts is both deeply frightening and much too like our own.
The series stars Parks and Recreation’s Adam Scott as Mark, a widower who works in the macrodata refinery department of a shadowy corporation called Lumon. He’s undergone the “severance” process that gives the show its name, and his life is completely bifurcated. While at the office, he remembers nothing about the outside world, even his own last name. When he leaves at the end of the day, he recovers all memories of his life and identity, but forgets everything that happened at work. Mark’s “innie,” as Lumon cloyingly terms its severed employees’ workplace selves, exists entirely within the company’s ‘90-retro corporate office—this version of Mark has never stood in the sunlight, or spoken to anyone other than his colleagues. He doesn’t know that he was ever married, much less that his wife died, which is exactly why his grieving “outie” wanted to be severed in the first place. “I just feel like forgetting about her for eight hours a day isn’t the same thing as healing,” Mark’s sister points out.
It’s all a little heady, but delivered with a hefty amount of style to help the world building go down. Most of the series is directed by Ben Stiller, and imbued with a quiet, odd-ball humor. When Mark receives a promotion, his boss, a nasty piece of bureaucratic work played with gusto by Patricia Arquette, alerts him that a congratulatory handshake is “available upon request,” and looks simultaneously icy and revulsed when Mark takes her up on the offer. Mark and his fellow severed refiners engage in chirpy banter that’s funny enough until you realize that they’re the only conversations that these “innies” have ever had. Their memories are a sea of fluorescent lighting and stain-resistant carpets, their whole world is coffee breaks and legal pads. In short, they live in hell.
Mark’s monotonous existence is shaken up when he encounters members of the anti-severance movement, and as each of his colleagues discover reasons of their own to attempt to disrupt the Lumon status quo. Still, there’s something lovely about the world the severed refiners create out of their tiny cubicle farm. Too many shows give their characters circumstances instead of personalities. At their workplace, the characters in Severance have no biographies. All they are is personality and all they have is each other. It also helps that the cast is fantastic: John Turturro plays Irving, the devoted company man, Zach Cherry plays the resident jokester, while Britt Lower plays the skeptical new refiner Helly. Overseeing them is Tramell Tillman’s Milchick, who, like Arquette’s character, isn’t severed. In a show with uniformly excellent performances, Tillman stands out in his sincerely frightening portrayal of Milchick, the initiator of both the refiners’ mandatory fun, which includes opportunities to listen to music for exactly five minutes, and their punishments, via trips to the menace-filled “break room.”
Occasionally, the show’s artfulness feels a tad trite. Again and again, the color blue symbolizes Lumon and all its corporate control while red represents the vibrance of “outie” life. Helly, the rebel, has bright red hair; in his blue corporate housing, Mark has an aquarium that holds two fish, each a vivid shade of red and blue, respectively. A book that makes its way into the office from the outside world and eventually revolutionizes Mark’s thinking about his role as an employee is bright red. The color games are a bit obvious, but the series doesn’t otherwise go overboard in courting fevered online screenshot dissections and Westworld-style theorizing. It’s full of mysteries, but seems unlikely to become bogged down under the weight too-worn devices like anagrams and alternate timelines.
One of the series’ biggest unknowns is the nature of the work the refiners do. It appears to be data analysis by way of numerology: They stare at numbers on cathode ray computer screens, identifying ones that spark particular emotions, like a “scary” 5 or a “happy” 7. They might be launching missiles or processing supplier invoices, the characters don’t know. Absent any opportunity for intrinsic motivation, they work for meager incentives, like finger traps and waffle parties.
The innies at first seem pitiable. Their work serves unknown goals, and they’re only able to dream of meeting quotas, earning more finger traps, and maybe being rewarded with some mandatory fun. Then I remembered that my version of a waffle party is treating myself to a nice meal on a Friday night, and that so many of us feel stuck in the finger trap of the work-life balance myth. We’re perhaps more like the innies than we’d like to think, our cubicles are just a bit bigger.