I finished watching Severance last week and it goes straight to the pool room. By that, I mean I reckon it’s in the top five TV shows I’ve ever watched.
I think it’s genius. Subversive, dystopian (though perhaps not for everyone), intelligent, and laced with brilliant, absurdist wit.
The basic premise, for those who haven’t seen it (you should), is that in some undefined time a procedure has been developed to allow people to separate their work life from their home life. The worker becomes an ‘innie’; the home self the ‘outie’, and neither knows what goes on in the other’s life. They work for huge organisation called Lumon, which is strange and cult-like.
Why anyone would agree to such a procedure is beyond my reckoning, despite the examples provided, such as avoiding a tragedy. Effectively, each person who submits to this has a double-life – or, rather, two half-lives – one that never (literally) sees the light of day, the other which has no understanding of the toil and interactions that make their existence possible. For me, it’s a nightmarish concept – and it becomes so in the show.
Though there is so much strange in this show, much of it feels familiar to anyone who has spent time in an office. It’s taken to a colourful extreme, but the work of the refiners in MacroData Refinement seems pointless and mind-numbing, but no more so than what many are subjected to in their working life. We turn up to the job, do our little bit, often oblivious of the point or value of what we contribute.
Likewise, the spurious celebrations and confected excitement are familiar. In the office, they are intended to engender team spirit and loyalty, much as in the show. In Severance, they’re an amusing highlight, somewhat ridiculous – the devilled egg parties, the dance parties, the Waffle reward – but they are an extreme and absurdist version of what most of us have experienced at one time or another. There is, literally, a handbook for these things, and artificial enthusiasm is all a part of it.
Looking in from the outside it seems ridiculous, but it’s much more easily accepted when you’re the recipient. I could go on, but you get the point.
So much of this show was absurdist that I couldn’t help but think of Kafka as I watched. As with him, the absurd is made to appear commonplace. Strange things happen but are accepted because no-one knows any better. The pointless work, the odd rituals, the nonsense spouted and recited, are all of a piece. Even the vaguely retro aesthetic plays into it. But, as with Kafka, there is satirical wit and, at the heart of it, a deep understanding of humanity.
Ultimately, that’s what this story is about – the gradual, dawning realisation that they have been played wrong and exploited. It awakes a need for enlightenment, which is very human, and finally a haphazard desire to become whole again, towards true humanity.
It’s a parable that encompasses so many aspects of modern life that there will be thesis and books written about it, I’m sure. I can hardly believe it could be better executed than this production. The concept is fantastic, the writing great, the acting perfect, the production design wonderful, and the direction – by Ben Stiller – is pitch-perfect.
Like much of the world, I await with great excitement for series two to reveal the truths we yearn to know.