Severance is an American science fiction psychological thriller television series created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. It stars Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, Tramell Tillman, Jen Tullock, Dichen Lachman, Michael Chernus, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, and Patricia Arquette. The plot follows Mark S. (Scott), an employee of the fictional corporation Lumon Industries who agrees to a "severance" program in which his non-work memories are separated from his work memories.
The series premiered on Apple TV+ on February 18, 2022. It received acclaim from critics and audiences for its cinematography, direction, production design, musical score, story, and performances. The series received 14 nominations at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series and acting nominations for Scott, Turturro, Walken, and Arquette; it won for Main Title Design and musical score. In April 2022, the series was renewed for a second season.
Biotechnology corporation Lumon Industries uses a medical procedure called "severance" to separate the memories of their employees depending spatially on whether they are at work or not. When a severed worker is at work, they are dubbed "innies" and can remember nothing of their lives or the world outside. When outside work, they are dubbed "outies" and cannot remember their time at work. Due to this innie and outie experience two different lives, with distinct personalities and agendas. Season one centers on one severed employee, Mark (Adam Scott), who gradually uncovers a web of conspiracies at Lumon.
Ben Stiller has an uncredited voice cameo as an animated version of Kier Eagan.
The first through fourth episodes are written by Dan Erickson, Mohamad El Masri, Wei-Ning Yu, and Anna Ouyang Moench, respectively; the sixth episode is written by Erin Wagoner.
While studying English at Western Washington University, Erickson became interested in the theater department, writing short plays and other creative works. Soon after, Erickson attended New York University, where he got a master's degree in television writing. In 2016, his screenplay for the pilot of Severance appeared on Blood List's survey results of the best unproduced genre screenplays. Erickson had worked in an office job before writing the show, stating in an interview, "The initial ideas came to me while I was working a really bad office job and going through a somewhat depressive state." Erickson said his job was so mind-numbing that he wished he could "skip the eight hours of the workday, to disassociate and just get it over with", which became the premise of the show. Erickson is close with his siblings, stating they were inspirations for some of the characters on the show.
Ben Stiller first read the screenplay to the pilot episode at least five years before the show premiered, calling it "the longest thing I've ever worked on." The script was submitted by Dan Erickson as a writing sample to Stiller's production company Red Hour Productions, and passed to Stiller by development executive Jackie Cohn. Stiller said he enjoyed the story's contributions to the workplace comedy. In January 2017, Stiller invited Adam Scott to star. In November 2019, Apple TV+ gave Severance a series order, with Stiller directing and Scott cast in the leading role. Stiller was only attached to direct the pilot but he decided to direct several more episodes as the series entered development.
On April 6, 2022, Apple renewed the series for a second season.
The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the initial production start of March 2020. Principal photography for the first season started in New York City under the working title Tumwater on November 8, 2020, the day after the U.S. presidential election. The opening scene of the show was shot on January 6, 2021. The series filmed for a few days in Nyack in February and in Kingston and Beacon in March. In April, filming moved to central New Jersey, mainly in the Bell Labs Holmdel Complex which stood in for Lumon HQ. Filming was scheduled to conclude on June 23, 2021.
Production designer Jeremy Hindle blended corporate looks from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s for the show's distinctive look, and cited modernist architect Eero Saarinen as influential for the building design. Erickson said the mix of cars and technologies from different eras was meant to "give a slight sense of disorientation" and make Lumon "feel unmoored from time and space". Stiller said the prop master reconstructed old computers so the actors could actually do the work presented on the show in order to get adjusted to the office setting. These computers lacked an escape key, as a metaphor for the lack of control the Innies have while in Lumon's offices.
The second season began filming on October 3, 2022, in New York City, and was set to wrap on May 12, 2023. However, on May 8, 2023, production of the season was shut down due to the 2023 Writers Guild of America strike. Production had resumed by May 13, 2023, with filming occurring in Newfoundland. Filming was later shut down again due to the dual actors and writers strike, but resumed on January 29, 2024.
In January 2020, Patricia Arquette, Britt Lower, Jen Tullock, and Zach Cherry were added to the cast. Tramell Tillman joined in February 2020, and John Turturro and Christopher Walken were added in November 2020. Dichen Lachman was cast in December 2020. Turturro said he recommended Walken for the role of Burt because he had known him for "a long time and I don't have to really act like we're friends."
On October 31, 2022, Gwendoline Christie, Bob Balaban, Merritt Wever, Alia Shawkat, Robby Benson, Stefano Carannante, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and John Noble were announced to have joined the cast for season two.
Relatively recent media that influenced Severance include the online urban legend known as The Backrooms, the computer game The Stanley Parable, films including Office Space, Brazil, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the Dilbert comic strips. Older influences include the existential hell in the Jean-Paul Sartre play No Exit and the totalitarian dystopia in the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Aesthetically, the series was influenced by the films Brazil, Dark City, and Playtime.
Regarding the real-world influences of the show, Ericksen remarked that "the same frustrations that led us to this moment as a country [United States] and as a world are the ones that I was feeling when I wrote this because I was working office jobs, and I was dealing with all these increasingly insane requests that are made of workers. This was born of that." He added that "employees are the ones who are expected to give and give and give, with the understanding that this is a family—you’re doing this out of love, but then that is often not returned by the employers in any kind of a substantive way".
Severance was met with critical acclaim upon its release. On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 97% of 111 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 8.6/10. The website's consensus reads: "Audacious, mysterious, and bringing fresh insight into the perils of corporate drudgery, Severance is the complete package." Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned a score of 83 out of 100 based on 36 critics, indicating "universal acclaim".
The series received a rating of 5 out of 5 stars from Lucy Mangan of The Guardian and Rachael Sigee of I, 4 out of 5 stars from Huw Fullerton of Radio Times, John Nugent of Empire, Alan Sepinwall of Rolling Stone and Anita Singh of The Telegraph, and 3.5 out of 4 stars from Patrick Ryan of USA Today. In her review, Mangan praised Stiller's direction, the writing, and the performances of the cast (particularly those of Arquette, Turturro, Walken, and Tillman). Sigee also praised the performances, especially Scott's, Arquette's, Turturro's and Walken's, and wrote, "Severance moves slowly but surely, allowing time to absorb both the impressive world-building and stunning visuals, [...] [and] its breathtaking cinematography and design. With an exceptional cast [...], this is an original, weird, thought-provoking and beautifully crafted story that asks just how much of ourselves we should give over to our jobs." Fullerton also praised Scott's performance and called the series "an impressive creation." Nugent praised the direction, performances of Scott, Arquette, Turturro and Walken, and chemistry between the latter two. Sepinwall also praised Stiller's direction and the cast's performances (most notably those of Scott, Turturro, Walken, Lower and Tillman), in addition to the production design, tone, and season finale.
Grading the series an "A", Carly Lane of Collider wrote, "the most engrossing element of Severance is the many mysteries it presents, wrapped up in silent overarching questions of philosophy, morality, and free will versus choice, and as the series demonstrates, some of those questions aren't so easily solved, but some issues aren't as black-and-white as initially presented either." Also grading it an "A", Ben Travers of IndieWire wrote, "Whether you invest in the allegory, character arcs, or both, 'Severance' hits its marks. [...] Erickson and his writing staff deserve a ton of credit. The season plays out cleanly and efficiently; episodes range from nearly 60 minutes to a crisp 40; cliffhangers abound, but they’re earned. [...] This is serialized storytelling that knows how to make the most of its episodic format." Stephen Robinson of The A.V. Club gave it an "A-" grade and praised Stiller's direction and the cast, with the performances of Lower, Scott, Tillman, Turturro, Walken, Tullock and Cherry singled out. For Entertainment Weekly, Kristen Baldwin graded it a "B+" and highlighted the performances of Scott, Lower and Tillman, writing, "Scott is a superb fit for Severance's central everyman, [...] Lower brings an effective vulnerability to the acerbic Helly, and Tramell Tillman is an absolute force of charisma as Milchick."
Giving the series an "amazing" score of 9 out of 10, Samantha Nelson of IGN wrote in her verdict, "Severance [...] uses a clever premise and excellent cast to set up an intriguing mystery that leaves plenty of room for the characters to evolve." Writing for Paste, Shane Ryan gave it an 8.1 out of 10 and praised the performances of Scott, Arquette and Tillman as well as Stiller and McArdle's direction. Kyle Mullin of Under the Radar gave it an 8 out of 10 and said, "Severance's writer/creator Dan Erickson is another newcomer who pens scenes with veteran-level aplomb. Every scene is a Golden Age of TV gem in its own right. But Severance's dramatic heart resides at the workplace, where it also becomes a white-knuckle thriller. This is where director Ben Stiller especially shines, training his lens and setting the scenes [...]. He certainly brings the best out of his cast."
The American Film Institute named it one of the ten best television programs of the year.
The first season was recognized with The ReFrame Stamp for hiring people of underrepresented gender identities, and of color.
The second season was teased during the Apple Event on September 7, 2022, which featured Helly (Britt Lower).
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