The 50 best TV shows of 2022: No 3 – Severance

The timing was almost suspicious. Right as workers started shuffling back into the office at the end of the Omicron surge, Apple TV+ released a show that seemed to capture all those heightened tensions over our relationship with work, and play, and which of the two takes primacy, then condense them into one highly bingeable product. The great resignation, pre-tirement, quiet quitting: Severance seemed to anticipate the lot with such alarming clarity, you wondered whether the brains behind the show – creator Dan Erickson and director Ben Stiller – had access to some sort of future-predicting device, perhaps one created by the show’s nefarious corporation, Lumon Industries.

OK, there’s a more likely explanation for all that prescience: the themes at the heart of Severance have pretty much always been relevant. TV has long been fascinated with humanity’s fragile relationship with work, right back to when Lucille Ball was shovelling conveyor belt chocolates into her mouth to avoid getting fired. But what Severance did was infuse those perennial concerns with some very modern ones: corporate malfeasance, data harvesting, bodily autonomy. The result was a paranoid-thriller puzzle-box mystery that recalled Lost’s stronger moments.

Severance’s premise is almost bewilderingly high-concept: what would life be like if you could divide your brain so your work memories were separate from your non-work ones? Employees at Lumon Industries opt into a process where they are essentially split into two selves: an “innie” and an “outie”. The innie has no memory of life outside the workplace, the outie remembers nothing outside their leisure hours. A tantalising prospect, you might think – but only if you’re the outie. The innie is essentially trapped in 24/7 servitude, familiar only with the stark, strip-lit walls of an office.

Offering himself up as one such innie/outie guinea pig is Severance’s protagonist, Mark (Adam Scott), who thinks this bifurcated lifestyle might help him get over the death of his wife. Mark’s innie, Mark S, works in the nebulously titled Macrodata Refinement department, along with compliant Dylan G (Zach Cherry), fussy company man Irving B (John Turturro) and Helly R (Britt Lower), who despite being new to the company is already showing signs of ennui. The team’s work day consists of placing a series of numbers into digital “bins”. They have no idea what the larger purpose of this task is, and aren’t allowed to communicate with their outie selves by, say, taking a scrap of paper with them when they leave for the day. Naturally, though, they start to chafe against the constraints of their employment, while outie Mark begins to investigate the company he has offered up half his brain to.

Confused? Fair enough! Still, at a time where so many shows are guilty of hand-holding, Severance should be praised for its absolute refusal to do so. This is a series that wants you to play detective and pore over every last detail looking for clues as to what’s really going on at Lumon. What does the company actually trade in? Why do the team seem to work in an office from 1975, when the rest of Severance’s world is set in the present day? What’s the deal with Lumon’s L Ron Hubbard-esque founder, Kier Eagan? Why does Irving keep having dreams of being submerged in black goo? Why is there a room in the office full of baby goats?

For all its curious qualities, Severance never feels less than engrossing. That’s down to the performances, which fill Lumon’s sterile hallways with warmth and pathos. Lower stands out as Helly R, anguished about her own futile, office-bound existence, while Scott is impressive in playing two subtly different versions of the same character, and Turturro strikes up a heartbreaking, surely doomed relationship with the head of another department, played by Christopher Walken.

Yes, Christopher Walken. Oh, and Patricia Arquette too, having enormous fun as Lumon’s Nurse Ratched-like middle manager Harmony Cobel. Severance is stacked with big names, a sign of the financial clout of the company that backed it. But Apple’s money has been well spent: it looks gorgeous, in terms of the clean, mid-century set design and its lovely symmetrical cinematography. And in Stiller, it boasts one of the most interesting directors working in TV at the moment, fully in tune with the show’s singularly strange vibe, which at times – like the four-minute office dance sequence to the soundtrack of “defiant jazz” – is as funny as it is unsettling.

The whole thing culminates in a season finale that showrunners should be studying for years to come; a sudden explosion of satisfying reveals that leaves you desperately wanting more. There’s a danger that with all its unanswered questions, Severance is writing cheques it ultimately won’t be able to cash. But that’s a problem for another day. For now, we should revel in the fact that such an original, inventive drama exists at all. Switch your brain on – or half of it, at least – and enjoy.