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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
A lot of us have a work self and a real self. But in the fascinating new Apple series "Severance," a group of office workers are experiencing that at a whole other level. They've undergone brain surgery that completely separates their memories of work from their memories of their regular lives.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
Starring Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and John Turturro, among others, "Severance" is a workplace satire, a futuristic thought experiment about identity and a drama about the dimensions of grief. I'm Glen Weldon.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And today, we're talking about "Severance" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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HOLMES: Joining us today is Vulture TV critic Roxana Hadadi. Hello, Roxana. Welcome back.
ROXANA HADADI: Hey, guys. Thank you.
HOLMES: And also joining us is writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris. Good to see you, as always.
CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Very happy to be with you, Linda.
HOLMES: So "Severance" was created by writer Dan Erickson. But the big creative name that's been most associated with it has been Ben Stiller, who is an executive producer and the director of some of the episodes, including the opener, in which you kind of learn about this whole world. The idea is that this company, which is called Lumon, has employees going through a process called "Severance." And "Severance" is brain surgery. It makes it so that when you're at work, you don't remember anything about your life outside the building and vice versa. So when you're at home, you don't really know who your colleagues are, for example. You have no memory of them. And when you're at work, you don't even have any idea whether you have kids or anything like that. It's as if your regular self is just unconscious when you're at work. And your work self is unconscious when you're at home, if that makes sense.
So Adam Scott plays Mark, who's been there for a while. And he's responsible for the orientation of a new employee named Helly. She's played by Britt Lower. Other co-workers include the stoic Irving, played by John Turturro, and the more playful Dylan, played by Zach Cherry. Patricia Arquette plays the boss, whose name is Harmony. There are nine episodes in this first season. I think, when you get to the end of this season, you will certainly hope you get to see a second season - seems like a decent bet with this personnel involved. So this is streaming now on Apple. Glen, you like "Severance," right?
WELDON: I did, man. It is weird. It is stylish. It is darkly funny. And it is sharply satirical. And I use that word advisedly to contrast it to being broadly satirical - which is to say, this could very easily be a show about how corporations are dehumanizing and exploitative. But we don't need that show. We are all collectively living that show. And also, we've had that show. Remember "Better Off Ted"? I loved "Better Off Ted." That was a blistering takedown of corporate culture that managed to keep a straight face. But the thought of doing that in a more dramatic way for hourlong episodes, I wasn't excited for it.
WELDON: All of this show's satiric energy is being channeled into building out the very weird world of - not of corporate America but of this very specific corporation in America. Its history, its lore, its structures. It's got a look and feel that's all its own. And, I think, importantly, it can turn on a dime tonally. So you can accommodate some very creepy, very suspenseful elements. And you also get what I think is a very real relationship between Mark and his sister, Devon, played by Jen Tullock, who is terrific. The classic dig on a show like this that's this cerebral is there's no heart. Well, there's your heart. There's your beating heart right there - and yet still find room to let Michael Chernus, as Devon's husband, Ricken, go off and do his thing. I think he's one of the most fun things about this show. So yeah, 10s, 10s, 10s across the board for me.
HOLMES: Nice. Excellent. How about you, Roxana?
HADADI: Yeah. I very much am a sucker for what Glen said we've already gone through before. I love a corporations-are-bad TV show. But this show takes it so much deeper than that in terms of evaluating, how do corporations build the myth? And so there is sort of a cult element here, which I'm also a sucker for (laughter). So I really like that we - you know, we're going deeper into this idea of, how do companies evaluate the worth of their employees, how much their employees are giving to them? And there's been a lot in the marketing about, what if work-life balance were literal - which I think is sort of a pithy way to explain what the show is doing.
But for me, as a viewer, it did raise all these questions of, well, when I'm at work, I do talk about my personal life. And when I'm at home, I do talk about work. And so when you set up that binary, what does that do? Does it give you freedom back as a person to be able to divide your life like that? Or is that not even possible in the world in which we live, to really set up those boundaries? So I like how the show sort of has this mysterious element not just about what Lumon is doing, but about who we are now as workers, and what can we turn off or turn on?
HADADI: And visually, I just really enjoy this sort of stylish, thoughtful way to imagine what is really, like, a Philip K. Dick universe, but without sort of the bland, all-white, Apple TV store sort of look...
HADADI: ...That we have gotten in sci-fi. So it's sort of funny to me that this is on Apple. But overall, yes, I am a very strong pro.
HOLMES: Yeah. I shared your sense when I first heard about this, that it might be, like, cubicle yuks. Like, I think, which is sort of what you're both referring to, like, that it might be that kind of, like - offices are bad and boring and glum. But I do think it gets a lot more interesting than that. Chris, what did you think?
KLIMEK: Well, it's the boring tyranny of consensus, Linda, because I love this show. I love things that take a very mundane, human, common experience and give it sort of a elaborate, fantastical genre explanation. In this case, it's that kind of fracture we all feel between our workplace selves and our home selves, like Roxana was saying, you know? I think of something like - the movie "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is like that, where it's just like, how can you ever really know your spouse? Well, they're - what if they were really a secret assassin? I mean, that's a, you know, movie with a dodgy reputation. But it's a similar kind of thing.
I also think this thing dodged the cube yuks bullet by being very specific in a weird way. I mean, at least it - this resonated with me profoundly just in the sense that when I launched myself out of college, into the workplace, I ended up in this - you know, my first white-collar job was moving boilerplate around and proposals for an insurance company, doing medical insurance stuff. It was a job that I'd never heard of before I got this job. It was a job that I - you know, after doing it for a couple of years, still had trouble believing was a job. So the element of this where they're sitting there sorting numbers on their desktops and, you know, trying to figure out what they're actually doing, that felt so resonant. And that was not something that I've ever really seen addressed in a piece of popular fiction that I could remember - just being at work, performing this task and not understanding what the task is.
I thought - there were some other warm elements. I thought the sort of budding relationship between the John Turturro character, Irving, and the Christopher Walken character, Burt G., was kind of tender and, you know, something that really just provided a character-based element to the story, didn't promote the mystery as much as the other elements. I felt like the ratio of mystery retained at the end of the nine episodes versus revelations that were paid off was just right. The degree of explanation we get for, you know, some of the mechanics of - behind the weird technology that's governing all this was the right amount, where there would be a temptation, I think, to overexplain it. I really, really loved this.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think you have to give a shout to the production design here. And the production designer - his name is Jeremy Hindle - has talked about bringing together a lot of different styles for this. And indeed, you know, as Roxana mentioned, there are parts of it that looked like an Apple store. There are all these extremely white, extremely long hallways, totally unadorned. But there are also times when the style of the furniture set against those walls reminded me more of, like, Kubrick, reminded me more of, like, 2001, that kind of stuff. And then you get - the office technology's very '80s. So you don't have the, like, slick computers of now or of Apple. You have these very - I mean, in some places you do, but the work that they're doing looks a little bit more kind of crunchy '80s. And a lot of it is somehow both mundane but also great to look at. I don't know exactly how that's accomplished because I'm not a production designer, but I so admired the look of this.
And I think the other thing, as - and Chris kind of alluded to this. The way they explain the technology is the right amount because this is a procedure - they eventually will make it clear to you kind of how it works and what it does and what its effects are. But I think for the most part, you do get this sense of, like, so in this really difficult world that these people live in, they've made this decision - you know, sometimes because of general conditions in the world, sometimes because of conditions in their lives - to be able to go to work and just shut themselves off.
And, you know, Erickson - Dan Erickson, who wrote the show, talked about this being - he originally had a very kind of drudgery-type job and thought, I would really prefer to just shut myself off and just be essentially an automaton for the next eight hours and then just go home. I think most people who have had really boring jobs - like, that makes a certain amount of sense. But it does become kind of this - it's a work satire, but it's also this, like, really interesting kind of exploration of the self.
WELDON: Yeah, it's about something. It's about who we are at our core, who we'd be if we hadn't spent a lifetime being shaped by memories and experiences and social interactions. It is about moral philosophy in much the same way that "The Good Place" was, except that it's all implicit here. In "The Good Place," you know, Chidi would break off into response groups and everybody would talk about moral philosophy. Here, it's in the infrastructure. It's what the show's about in a real way. And while, you know, Dan Erickson has had a string of meaningless office jobs, as many of us have, you know, Ben Stiller's in showbiz. He's always been in showbiz, so this world can - probably seems very unfamiliar to him. And maybe that's why the show threads the needle - a very specific needle - that I think it does. It comes from a place of deep knowledge of the subject, but the directorial perspective is one of a complete outsider. So that's maybe why I can find and highlight and really live in the absurdity of all this.
HADADI: And I think the strength of the writing is that there are all these elements that seem very simultaneously disparate, but on their face, like, meaningless. We haven't really talked about what this team does, but they, like, analyze a spreadsheet for numbers that feel wrong.
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ADAM SCOTT: (As Mark) Now, all the data you see falls into one of four essential categories, and we group each line of code and then sort it evenly between five digital buckets.
BRITT LOWER: (As Helly) Party.
SCOTT: (As Mark) Just poke around first. Use the arrows.
HADADI: And these things don't make sense, right? Like, there is no world in which we could look at these items and be like, oh, yeah, like, that reminds me of what I did in my office. But the importance that these tasks are given from management and how indecipherable they are to the workers doing them - I think that is a feeling that is very evocative and relatable for most of us. And I sort of like that we're in a place right now - not where every TV show feels like "Lost," because we've all sort of outgrown that, like, everything's a mystery. But I do think that sort of sprinkling these things in and inviting discussion and inviting analysis makes it fun. So I like how much the production design is green and blue and how you see those visual motifs pop up throughout the show. So I think they're very thoughtful in building this world in which some things make sense and some things don't. And I think it's really built that sense strongly in the first half of the season.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I will say, I just really appreciate these performances, as well, because I think it's really tough to inhabit people who are in a world like this. Certainly what you might consider the lead performances - you know, Adam Scott and Britt Lower and Patricia Arquette, perhaps - but these - some of these other - performances, this John Turturro performance. It's not that I don't know what a good actor he is, but I so love just the unexpected oddities that he puts in this character. And you sort of can't tell whether he's, like, the warmest of them or the coolest of them in this really fantastic and complex way. I appreciate that so much. I love this Zach Cherry performance as Dylan. I think that character is so - again, so unexpected and so kind of multidimensional for somebody who you, for the most part, really don't learn a lot about outside of this closed environment. I also think it's a show that benefits, I will say, from not only some patience, but maybe after you get a little more accustomed to it - I benefited from going back and rewatching the first episode because it made more sense to me then. I also want to call out Tramell Tillman, who plays Milchick, who is this, like, office manager.
KLIMEK: But also the heavy, which is - I mean, the office manager often is the heavy in my experience anyway. That's a real-life thing.
WELDON: Certainly true.
HOLMES: He's the heavy. He's the cheerleader. He's the disciplinarian. He helps administer this bizarre system of incentives that they have for getting different things done and how, you know, Dylan is at the beginning, very proudly showing off his finger traps and his...
KLIMEK: Motivating adults with these sort of infantile prizes - that was another thing that felt very...
KLIMEK: ...True to me (laughter)...
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.
KLIMEK: ...Like, actually, like, lived white-collar experience - not - you know, from Erickson, not Stiller, but yeah.
HOLMES: Right, exactly. It's that thing of like, he's very proud of these caricature portraits of him that he has won.
HOLMES: And, like, you probably have not gotten caricature portraits. But you've probably got something where you're like, is this my reward?
HOLMES: Like, is this my incentive, my prize for good performance?
KLIMEK: You were talking about the strength of the performances, Linda. I can see why actors would be drawn to this because nobody gets just one thing to play. And the one that actually surprised me the most, if we could talk about this, was Walken because this is an actor who, like a lot of other actors of his generation - like, you know, Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino and stuff, like the - you know, as they've gotten older, they've kind of veered into this easily parodied - you know, everybody's got a Walken. Everybody's got a Pacino. And he's doing all of his tics. But it never felt sticky to me, you know? Every moment that he was on screen felt genuine. And I - like I said earlier, I really believed this evolving relationship between him and the Turturro character.
KLIMEK: That is the way you use a sort of celebrity, you know, kind of elevated player like that - great Walken performance.
WELDON: Yeah. This is my point. Like, if we could come up with an Emmy that combines acting, directing, writing with casting - you call it best strategic deployment of an actor. I think Turturro is so well-used here 'cause as you watch him, you're unconsciously drawing on all these other John Turturro performances that live inside your head - same thing with Walken, Chris. Like, he seems perfectly sweet, but there's something else going on in the back of your head 'cause you know this guy. You know this actor.
HOLMES: Which of these performances resonated with you, Roxana?
HADADI: Tillman - I'm so impressed by what he does as Mr. Milchick. And I think what really works is, for the most part, yes, nobody is playing just one thing. But I think everyone's roles are sort of definable. We understand that Adam Scott and the rest of that crew are employees. We understand that Patricia Arquette is sort of a middle manager. Walken is the head of another department. But Mr. Milchick just floats. And it seems like he has an ever-evolving array of responsibilities, which range from friendly to threatening. And the fact that Tillman is able to pull all of those off - like, I was most unsettled when he smiled at them. And I just think that's so impressive to do.
Linda, you mentioned Kubrick. There are so many Kubrick nods in what they have Mr. Milchick do. And I just really appreciated that sense of history of like, we're building on a sci fi horror tradition, but we're taking it to a different place.
HADADI: And Tillman seems, like, the key to that.
HOLMES: And I think - particularly in those first couple of episodes, I think that performance - Mr. Milchick is the first character whose behavior is so off - this sort of friendliness/menace. I still feel like at the end of the season, I don't really know, like, whether he is a malevolent presence or a benevolent presence or how he really got into this situation in the first place, how much he knows about different things that are going on. And I think he is somebody who manages to be both one of the most interesting characters, and also, if this makes sense, a compliment to that production design in that he also is sort of creating the atmosphere, the working conditions of that office.
KLIMEK: On the characterization-as-production design tip, this man has the best posture I've ever seen.
KLIMEK: Like, he walks - he is just wearing a short - like the Sipowicz, the short-sleeved dress shirt with the tie. But he walks like he's in a Batsuit all the time...
KLIMEK: ...You know, shoulders up and back a little bit. Yeah, he's amazing.
HOLMES: You mentioned, Glen, Jen Tullock and Michael Chernus. They play the sister and brother-in-law of the Adam Scott character, Mark. I love the fact that that part of the story is so natural.
HOLMES: And it's like you, said, Glen. It's the ability to turn on a dime tonally, because, you know, that's indie movie mumblecore...
HOLMES: ...Stuff of, you know, a guy who's had a tough experience, who is spending time with his sister and brother-in-law. And the brother-in-law is kind of an odd duck, but they both love him very much, and they're trying to kind of get him through it. And you learn that Mark, who is this really kind of, like, literally unconscious character at work - you know, that at home he has this kind of dry sense of humor. He's able to - like, you learn who the person is. I think the ability to - even though you spend much, much, much, much more time in the office, the ability to complement it with those glimpses of his home life that are so effective - it's just a really, really, really strong show.
HOLMES: All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Severance." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Glen Weldon, Roxana Hadadi, Chris Klimek, thank you all for being here.
WELDON: Thank you.
HADADI: Thank you.
KLIMEK: Thank you.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, subscribe to our newsletter. It's over at npr.org/popculturenewsletter.
This episode was produced by Candice Lim and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides the music you are bobbing your head to right now. I'm Linda Holmes, and we will see you all tomorrow when we will be rounding up this year's Oscar nominees for international feature film.
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