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Tribune News Service
Mark Meszoros

‘Severance’ takes work/life balance struggle to the extreme with mystery-filled tale full of twists

Achieving a healthy work/life balance probably has never been more challenging, with smartphones and other avenues of communication making it easier than ever for a family member to contact you during work hours or for you to get sucked into work emails at night while you’re trying to enjoy some couch time.

What if you could separate work hours from personal time? Truly, truly separate them?

That’s the question posed by “Severance,” an intriguing new high-concept, hourlong mystery-drama series from Apple TV+, with two episodes debuting Friday and the following seven arriving on Fridays through April 8.

The brainchild of newcomer Dan Erickson, the series involves a group of people who undergo a controversial surgical operation — the titular “Severance” procedure — that, via an implanted microchip, splits his or her home self from a work counterpart. While the “innie” will have no recollection or understanding of his or her counterpart’s home life, the “outie” similarly will be unaware of anything that happens at the office.

“It’s been a bizarre journey ‘cause for me, in writing a script about how much I hate work, I ended up getting a job I loved,” Erickson said recently during the show’s recent panel during the Television Critics Association’s recent virtual press tour.

The show’s journey from Erickson’s mind to a major streaming platform began in earnest in 2016, according to the series’ production notes, when his script for the pilot became the first TV script to make the annual BloodList, a genre-specific top 10 of unproduced screenplays. The script was later brought to the attention of actor-director Ben Stiller and his partner in Red Hour Productions, Nicholas Weinstock, which Stiller called “an amazing gift” during the panel.

(How much of an unknown was Erickson at the time? In the notes, Weinstock recalled that, after a successful meeting at Apple headquarters, the writer spent the rest of the day driving for Postmates, as that’s how he’d been paying the bills.)

“Severance” largely focuses on Mark Scout (Adam Scott of “Parks and Recreation” and “Big Little Lies”), who decides to undergo Severance after the unexpected death of his wife, which had left him unable to focus on his teaching job. While his sad outie sulks at home, often drinking to excess, his apparently content innie is none the wiser, even if he arrives beyond his workplace’s high-tech barrier possibly hungover.

We meet “Mark S” — as he’s known at Lumon Industries — on the day he is being promoted to head of macrodata refinement, aka MDR, and must orient a new hire following the mysteriously sudden departure of his former supervisor best work friend, Petey (Yul Vazquez).

The new hire is Helly R (Britt Lower, “Man Seeking Woman,” “Unforgettable”), who in the first episode, “Good News About Hell,” awakens face-down on a conference table to Mark’s voice coming through a nearby intercom. Mark has a series of questions for her, but, as she finds she is locked in this room, she is in no mood to answer them.

After giving up her rageful struggle to get out of the room, Helly — who doesn’t remember anything about herself, name included — does give into the orientation process and soon joins Mark and his other two subordinates, Irving B (John Turturro, “The Night Of”) and Dylan G (Zach Cherry, “Crashing”), at a four-desk cubicle in a reasonably spacious, otherwise largely empty white office space.

However, Helly’s desire to resign from her job — to escape from this bland, workplace-dystopian prison — never fades and begins to influence the others, much to the concern of non-Severed higher-ups including the cold Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette, “True Romance”) and smiling disciplinarian Seth Mitchick (Tramell Tillman, “Godfather of Harlem”).

Christopher Walken (“The Deer Hunter,” “Pulp Fiction”) has a key supporting role, as his severed worker — Burt G, head of Lumon’s optics and design arm — forms a bond with Irving that greatly changes the latter’s outlook on his job.

Like the others, the traditionally by-the-book Irving begins to question what it is he and the others actually are doing for Luman as they segregate strange-looking numbers among many others on an outdated computer screen fast enough to meet that quarter’s quota.

And for the competitive Dylan, rewards for a job well done, such as toy finger traps and odd waffle parties, may not be enough after a particularly eye-opening experience.

Stiller, whose big-screen directorial credits include “Zoolander,” “Tropic Thunder” and “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which featured Scott, also helmed every episode of the well-received 2018 Showtime drama series “Escape at Dannemora,” which starred Arquette. He helms the first three and final three episodes of “Severance,” with Aoife McArdle (“Kissing Candice”) directing the middle trio.

Asked how TV has changed since his days on 1990s sketch series “The Ben Stiller Show,” Stiller said it’s looked at differently now, with some shows receiving much stronger financial investments.

“There’s just the opportunity to do so many different kinds of things and explore (such) different genres,” he said. “Now I feel like it’s the place where you go if you want to take chances and explore different genres and work with really amazing people.”

“Severance” certainly is a different kind of thing and a show that takes risks, becoming increasingly strange as its revelations-filled debut season progresses — right through an intense finale that will have fans who stuck with it likely clamoring for a renewal from Apple.

Stiller says Erickson has ideas for future seasons, which would answer some mysteries not solved in these nine episodes while also posing new questions.

“We’re just now starting to see the cracks in the Lumon world and see what might be beyond in the greater world,” he said.

“Severance” is set in what Erickson calls “a vaguely now-ish timeline” in the fictional U.S. city of Kier, named after Lumon’s founder, Civil War-era doctor Kier Eagan. You will come to learn, some at Lumon — Severed or otherwise — revere Eagon as a God-like figure.

More often, however, “Severance” wants to be a satire of the corporate American workplace.

Erickson said it’s “broadly about … the dehumanization of work and how from the perspective of a giant corporation, anything that you can do to sort of reduce a human being to their practical value for the company and sort of take away all the other stuff, it feels like they would gladly, gladly take that step.”

He may not be dealing with that and genuinely enjoy his job, but Erickson, like so many folks working from during the pandemic, isn’t free of the work/life struggle.

“You’re doing your job 10 feet from where you sleep,” he said. “So for me, it’s been a challenge to teach myself to be like, ‘OK, it’s 5 p.m. I’m done.’”

“For me,” added Lower, “‘Severance’ is about this very human desire to wanna compartmentalize parts of our lives, whether that’s work or grief or a part of yourself that you’re at odds with.”

Scott had a different take.

“One of the many things I learned was never let a stranger put a microchip into your brain,” he said. “It’s just not a good idea, no matter how terrific the promises sound. Just stop. Or just really think about it before you let it happen.”

Said Erickson, “And we try.”


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