The Guide #26: why Severance and Station Eleven are true TV standouts

At the start of January I burned through what I was sure at the time was the nailed-on best show of 2022. Station Eleven (available on HBO Max in the US and Starzplay in the UK), which I’ve already wanged on about a couple of times in previous newsletters, is a drama set in the aftermath of a deadly flu pandemic that manages to be simultaneously gripping, deeply sad and quietly optimistic about the future of humanity.

Following an interconnected cast of characters through the pre- and post-apocalypse, the show is told in a fragmentary, time-skipping manner that is bewildering at first but becomes satisfying and revelatory once you adjust to its rhythms. Its cast is stacked with talent (Mackenzie Davis and Himesh Patel deserve to gobble up all the awards they’re pointed at). And it’s gorgeous to look at, full of grand, sparsely populated vistas – a product of the real pandemic that was raging while the show was filming.

So, yes, Station Eleven: fantastic, stunning, a high watermark for TV, etc… BUT then, last week, I caught up with Apple TV+’s Severance, and suddenly Station Eleven’s procession to that best show of the year gong isn’t looking quite as certain. Set in what is either the future or a parallel present, this sci-fi thriller follows employees at a mysterious company who opt to have their brains modified so they only remember their work lives at work and their home lives at home. A strange premise for sure, but Severance twists it into one of the most singularly inventive and thought-provoking series I’ve seen in quite some time, mulling over everything from our relationship with work (it’s already been dubbed the first “great resignation thriller”) to bodily autonomy.

As in Station Eleven, there’s some trickery at play with the storytelling. The bifurcated existence of the characters allows the show’s creators to keep information from both them and us – but never in a way that feels frustrating. And the cast (Adam Scott, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Christopher Walken) and behind-the-scenes talent (Ben Stiller directed a sizeable chunk of the series) are seriously impressive too. Befitting a show directed by Stiller, Severance is very funny at times, when it’s not harrowing and/or puzzling. Oh: and it’s stunning to look at, though in a completely different way to Station Eleven, finding pleasing symmetry in prefab office spaces, never-ending corridors and claustrophobic cubicles.

Paradoxically, both these series have rocked up at a time when there’s plenty to despair about in the world of scripted TV, with the sudden influx of remakes, reboots and superhero franchises, and the surfeit of soulless cash-in dramas about real-life scammers and scumbags. These two shows, though, feel like one-offs. You can see the faintest outline of influences in each – The Leftovers for Station Eleven, the work of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry for Severance – but these inspirations have been bent into strange new shapes. Both shows also have an almost preternatural timeliness in their themes: not through some desperate desire to be “of the moment” but through a fascination with the persistent questions that underpin our age.

Are these already the best two shows of the year? Severance is only two-thirds of the way through its nine-episode opening series, and might completely botch the landing (no such worries for Station Eleven, which, as a limited single series, has already wrapped things up pretty expertly). And it’s only the middle of March. There’s a long way to go and plenty of television to come: a new series of Donald Glover’s game-changing Atlanta starts next week in the US, the final season of Better Call Saul airs next month and all manner of much-anticipated shows are in the pipeline. Even so, if Station Eleven and Severance aren’t in the running when the end-of-year lists are finally drawn up, 2022 will have been a very good year for TV.

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