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In the thriller 'Severance,' Adam Scott's humanity hangs in the (work-life) balance

Mark (Adam Scott) greets new employee Helly (Britt Lower) in the Apple TV series <em>Severance</em>.
Apple TV
Mark (Adam Scott) greets new employee Helly (Britt Lower) in the Apple TV series Severance.

Make no mistake: That lengthy tracking shot near the top of the first episode of Severance, Apple TV+'s darkly funny, hugely imaginative corporate-thriller series, is all about swagger.

The camera follows Adam Scott's Mark through the spare, white, featureless fluorescent halls of Lumon Industries as he walks to his sad little cubicle. And it's a long, circuitous walk, because the floor on which he works appears to contain very few actual workspaces, and instead seems composed almost entirely of those endless, labyrinthine hallways.

The aforementioned swagger isn't possessed by Mark himself, who seems a dutifully nice, unassuming sort. No, that slow-burn start is all about Severance (and creator Dan Erickson, and director Ben Stiller) confidently calling its shot, saying: We're going somewhere, somewhere specific and stylized. We may take our time getting there, but if you hang with us, it'll be worth it.

For some viewers, the line between swagger and self-indulgence is a thin one, and the unhurried nature of the show's early going will prove a deal-breaker. For me, the world of this series is so fully imagined, so refreshingly singular — plus it just keeps on getting weirder — that I was only too happy to strap in, and was grateful I did.

Mark is one of a four-member team of Lumon employees who make up the Macrodata Refinement division. There's also Irving (John Turturro) a pure company man devoted to Lumon's unusual, quasi-religious corporate culture; Dylan (Zach Cherry), a sardonic desk jockey only interested in earning company perks for meeting his numbers, and new arrival Helly (Britt Lower), who puts the "hostile" in hostile work environment. (She whips an intercom at Mark's forehead a few minutes into their first meeting.)

You can't blame her; like all members of Mark's team, Helly has had her brain surgically altered so that, for security reasons, she retains no memories of the work she does at Lumon whenever she's at home — and retains no memories of her life outside of Lumon while she's at work. The key difference: Mark and his team of long-timers now accept this completely. To Helly, who doesn't recall agreeing to the process, it's all brand new, and terrifying; she wants out.

Putting the human in Human Resources

That's the high-concept premise: The Mark, Irving, Dylan and Helly who sit at those clunky console computers performing an inscrutable task with numbers all day long aren't really their "true" selves — they've been stripped of the manifold experiences that shape a life, and define a personality. These so-called "innies" do possess their own thoughts and feelings, however, and they're desperately curious about their selves outside the office. Any contact or communication between "innies" and "outies" is expressly forbidden, however.

When we get to meet Mark's "outie" self, we learn he's a deeply depressed man who eagerly agreed to the severance procedure after suffering a crushing loss; his grief has exhausted him, and he just wants to stop feeling it, even if just for eight hours a day. One of the first episode's finest, surest touches occurs as we follow "outie" Mark into a Lumon elevator, and observe the precise moment of his transition into "innie" Mark, during the descent to his sub-basement office space. There is a soft buzzing sound, the screen's aspect ratio widens, and the expression on his face subtly but chillingly alters from low-level despair into ... a perfect, blissful absence.

Now: This premise, and its execution, could easily go wrong in any of a hundred different ways. If all of this detailed, finely executed imaginative work were being done in service of broad corporate satire — the kind that simply sets about scoring lazy pot-shots at companies' ability to exploit and dehumanize their employees — it would grow rapidly one-note, and boring.

Instead, Severance expertly channels all of the energy it would otherwise spend making tired jokes about corporate culture into slowly but steadily building out its highly specific world. And the world of this particular corporation is fascinating — its puzzling business culture; its bizarre systems of employee performance reviews, rewards and punishments; its shadowy history and lore; and, most intriguingly, its mysteriously compelling founder. (Who seems like what you'd end up with if you mixed Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard with Elon Musk.)

The whole affair requires a sustained deftness of tone that the series pulls off effortlessly, steadily ratcheting up the stakes and pacing while supplying its characters room to breathe, grow and complicate.

In "outie" Mark's home life, his close relationship with his sister (a wryly funny and deeply empathetic Jen Tullock) provides him much-needed comfort, while her self-help author husband (the great Michael Chernus, who's hilarious here) causes him only exasperated frustration — and supplies the series with its best jokes.

In "innie" Mark's office life, his intense, ironically named boss Harmony (Patricia Arquette, going full ham and loving it) and aggressively affable office manager Milchick (Tramell Tillman) get to add layers their performances and make choices that legitimately surprise us.

And while all of this is going on, Severance manages to be about something, something that's fascinating to grapple with, and not a little unsettling — the notion of who we are at our core, and precisely how much of our self-perception is shaped by the exterior forces constantly bombarding us. Is Mark's "innie" truly a whole person, if he exists only to work? Can anything like a conscience arise in the absence of true consciousness?

Severance raises these questions and many more and — intriguingly — isn't particularly interested in serving up too-tidy answers.

I loved watching this show, but I do feel obliged to issue this caveat: Severance has a nine-episode season, and has not, at this writing, been picked up for another. It ends on a perfectly orchestrated, nerve-wracking cliffhanger that finds every member of the cast making irrevocable, harrowing decisions. Big questions looming over the season do get answered, but in the process, even bigger ones get proposed, just as the final credits come up.

If that's something you feel your system can take, then Severance's thrilling conclusion will satisfy you — even (especially?) if you find yourself yelling at the screen.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.