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Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
Nina Metz

Nina Metz: ‘Severance’ is the latest TV series that would have worked better as a 2-hour film. Here’s why

In “Severance,” the creepy-sardonic workplace drama on Apple TV+ starring Adam Scott, employees at a company called Lumon Industries submit to having a chip implanted in their brains that “severs” their memory in two: Whatever happens at the office stays at the office (where they have zero knowledge of their life outside of work) and once they leave the building they have no recollection of anything that happened over the last eight hours under the fluorescent lights of their cubicles. As far as their memories are concerned, they might as well be two different people.

Imagine how thrilled a company would be knowing its labor force is free from outside distractions. Never again will executives have to contend with demands for a work-life balance because Lumon has manufactured a way to rigidly enforce “balance” through amnesia.

It’s not just bosses who might see the appeal. Hate your job? Here’s a way to ensure none of that weighs on you once you go home. Miserable at home? Here’s a 40-hour break from that every week. Win-win! Except this bifurcation might start to resemble something hellish: Your office self is always at work, with no reprieve, where you perceive your existence as only that of a worker drone with no connection to the world outside. “Severance” takes things a step further: What if vaguely sinister things are happening at the office? What if the break room isn’t where the coffee machine is located but refers to an actual place, hidden ominously behind closed doors, that exists to mentally break disobedient employees? What if your daily life as an “innie” (to use the show’s parlance) is a trap but only your “outie” has the power to quit — and probably never will, unaware that anything is amiss?

These are intriguing ideas (Ben Stiller is an executive producer and directs a number of episodes) and there’s a lot to like about the show, with its absurdist sense of humor and retro ‘80s aesthetic of bulky computer monitors and suit-and-tie workwear. It’s a terrific cast, including Tramell Tillman and Patricia Arquette as employee supervisors who cross all kinds of boundaries, and a star-making turn from Britt Lower as a worker who really doesn’t want to be there. Despite the horror setup, the vibe here is cheeky and strange and darkly funny rather than scary. And the central mystery — the why of it all — kept me hooked-in initially.

But having watched all nine episodes, my biggest takeaway is that “Severance” is a solid premise for a movie rather than a series. I didn’t need nine episodes. The show doesn’t need nine episodes. I would argue that nine episodes actually works against so many of its weirdly engaging elements, which start to sag as they’re stretched out.

Despite what some showrunners may say about their efforts — “Yellowstone” creator Taylor Sheridan recently described his expanding franchise as “long-form films that we’re seeing in hourlong increments” — television shows are not just longer movies. They’re just not.

One format isn’t better than the other, but they’re also not interchangeable. Stories need shape and pacing. Some work better in self-contained two-hour blocks. Others benefit from being parceled out, chapter by chapter, developing themes and charting an evolution — or devolution (think “Breaking Bad”) — that builds over time into a rich tapestry. “Severance” is just the latest in a trend of serialized shows that feel like a term paper that’s been padded out to reach the assigned page count. A lot of shows start with good ideas. They just don’t have enough ideas.

As axioms go, the dictates of streaming have replaced “less is more” with “gotta keep ‘em watching,” but it’s not always to the benefit of the story itself. “Severance” doesn’t become deeper the longer we spend in this world. We’re simply given more variations on its central theme until the story reaches its climax. But even the finale, which offers some clues to Lumon’s endgame, holds back vital information. Presumably, that’s to set up a possibility for a Season 2. It’s a season full of stall tactics and extraneous material rather than a tightly-told clockwork story.

There are different skills and needs at play when crafting TV versus film and good writers adapt their talents depending on the medium. They also adapt to what the marketplace demands. You could pluck just about any movie title from the last 20 years or so and be fairly certain it would be developed as a TV series instead were it made today. Watching the nine-hour Netflix miniseries “Inventing Anna,” about journalism and con artistry, I was reminded of another story with similar themes: “Shattered Glass” from 2003, which is also a true story adaptation about journalism and con artistry (in the same person, in fact) and which worked fine as a 100-minute movie. Fine! I don’t think any of us would be smarter or more fulfilled or even more entertained if that same story had been dragged out hour after hour. It works very effectively as a movie.

But that’s not where the trend is headed and it spans genres, from yet more true crime with “The Shrink Next Door” to the indie-style portrait of depression in “Mr. Corman” to the international thriller “Suspicion” (all three on Apple TV+). A look at the downside of fame, Kevin Hart’s “True Story” on Netflix is a stand-alone movie idea if there ever was one. William Jackson Harper is so good on the recent season of “Love Life” on HBO Max as a New York book editor navigating dating post-divorce, but I don’t know that we get a more complicated understanding of his choices and his mindset (or those of the women he dates) because of the luxury of time. We just get more. Ten years ago this story would have been a rom-com movie and, in my view, better for it.

Audiences may stick around regardless, but we should want better from the multiple streaming platforms to which we subscribe. Movies and TV are their own individual art forms. Streaming has meant an increase in serialized storytelling (which is why we sometimes hear “this show is a 10-hour movie” canard) but episodes should work on their own rather than as installments that are, more or less, buying time because there’s an eight-episode order to fulfill, whether the original idea warrants it or not.

By the way, TV doesn’t have to have season-long arcs to be good. It didn’t for most of its history.

Every so often, I go back and watch episodes of something like “Murder, She Wrote” and think through the ways a self-contained story works, introducing a handful of new characters each time, and coming to a satisfying conclusion some 40-some minutes later. I wonder if many TV writers have this particular skill at the moment. We know there’s not much demand for it outside of the broadcast networks.

But these things tend to be cyclical and it’s possible we’ll see Hollywood embrace episodic television once again. And though business imperatives suggest otherwise, perhaps we’ll also see development executives rethink bloated attempts to serialize stories that would probably work better as movies.


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