CHICAGO - Adam Scott gives the performance of his career in "Severance" — a good thing, as Apple TV+‘s nimble, riveting workplace thriller-dramedy is enough to make its audience think seriously about retirement, to say nothing of its cast. If he never takes another role again, we can and should hold Ben Stiller accountable.
Stiller, an executive producer who directs the majority of the episodes in this excellent first season, won’t be the only one to blame. (Aoife McArdle directs episodes 4-6, and as those episodes are also very good, she, too, belongs on the list). There’s also series creator Dan Erickson and his top-notch writers’ room, who crafted this nightmarish yet oddly familiar world — a little bit "The Office," a little "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and a tiny dash of "Lost" are all in the mix.
But Scott might be most at fault. If he weren’t so damn good in the two linked-but-distinct roles he plays, "Severance" wouldn’t pack even half of its undeniable and unforgettable punch.
Scott ("Parks and Recreation") plays Mark Scout, a former professor whose grief drove him to accept a job on the "severed" floor at Lumon Industries, a ubiquitous, mysterious and massively powerful corporation that’s developed a technology that brings a whole new meaning to the idea of work/life balance. A chip is inserted into the employee’s brain, and when the worker in question crosses a particular threshold, their existing self — called an "outie" in the corporate parlance — vanishes, leaving behind an "innie," a self with no knowledge of or connection to the outside world.
So it’s "Mark S.," not Mark Scout, who greets "Helly R." (Britt Lower, top-notch) when she awakens on the severed floor without any memory of her life, her family or even her own name. It’s not a good day for either of them. Mark S. receives a menacing promotion (with the offer of a handshake on request) from his menacing boss Mrs. Corbel (a terrific Patricia Arquette) and her right-hand man Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman, great) — he’s replacing his best friend Petey (Yul Vasquez, also great) who is "no longer with the company."
It’s a surprise and not a happy one, to Mark S. and his colleagues, the competitive Dylan G. and employee handbook devotée Irving B. They’re played Zach Cherry and John Turturro respectively, both of whom give marvelous performances. Are you sensing a theme?
Zach Cherry, Britt Lower and John Turturro in "Severance."
In short, it’s a crackerjack premise brought to life by a uniformly excellent ensemble, and those are reasons enough to watch this corker of a series.
But Stiller and McArdle (as well as director of photography Jessica Lee Gagné) put in work every bit as intricate and impressive as that of their colleagues. "Severance" is as rich visually as it is thematically; the world is as textured as the performances. Gagné makes Lumon’s all-too familiar corporate brightness look both pristine and unsettling, a sterilized environment designed to weed out all foreign matter — up to and including books written by anyone except the company’s founder, revered as a godlike figure and captured in both 8-bit animation and as a talking wax figurine. (Lumon is a lot.)
Still, as beautiful (and terrible) as it is to look at, it’s the writing of "Severance" — and Scott’s excellent performance of that writing — that’s the real secret sauce of the series. Like much great science fiction, the outsize reality of this world is tailor-made to prompt the viewer to question their own. We may not all have coffeemakers branded with our employer’s logos waiting on us at home, but the questions "Severance" asks about how we sell and spend our time and how we’re shaped by the corporations that employ us are as relevant to the real world as they are to this fictional one.
Patricia Arquette and Tramell Tillman in "Severance."
But please, Mr. Scott, don’t quit on us. Jobs can be terrible — but if you don’t finish this one, we’ll be left with a great first season, a mess of terrific performances and a hell of a cliffhanger.
Nine-episode thriller series. Complete first season screened for review. First two episodes streaming Feb. 18, after which episodes arrive weekly. Featuring: Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette, Britt Lower, John Turturro, Zach Cherry, Tramell Tillman, Dichen Lachman, Jen Tullock, Christopher Walken, Michael Chernus, Yul Vazquez.
Other highlights from the week in streaming
Harold Perrineau, Ricky He and ensemble in "From." Photo: Epix.
- From (Epix): It’s a big week for genre shows with "Lost"in their DNA, either structurally, spiritually or both. This one stars the criminally underrated Harold Perrineau ("William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet," "Lost") as the sheriff of a town no one can ever leave, which is unfortunately also stalked by mysterious person-devouring monsters at night. Of all the gin joints in all the world, he had to walk into one it is literally impossible to escape from where scary things nibble meat off human ribcages. "From" should be catnip for fans of character-driven small-town horror — big Stephen King vibes here — but the real key to its success is its clever world-building. Perrineau, Ricky He and Catalina Sandino Moreno are standouts. One-hour horror/drama series. Three episodes screened for review. Premieres Sunday, Feb. 20 at 9 p.m. ET on Epix.
- The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Prime Video): Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) is back for a fourth go-round; this time, Amazon’s Prime Video will roll out two episodes each week, rather than dropping them all at once. You’ll have to take your fast-talking fun in small doses. It’s also the show’s penultimate season, as the streamer revealed that the just-renewed fifth season will be its last. One-hour drama about comedy. Seasons 1-3 streaming on Prime. First two episodes of season 4 streaming on Feb. 18.
- Painting With John (HBO): Painter/actor/musician/director/raconteur John Lurie invites viewers into his world in this entrancing little series, which HBO describes as "part meditative tutorial, part fireside chat." It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, it’s really for you. (It’s really, really for me.) Unscripted comedy series. Season 1 streaming on HBO Max. Season 2 premieres Friday, Feb. 18 at 11 p.m. ET.
More binge-worthy TV, streaming (for free!) on Tubi
Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009): One of the very best contemporary space operas came into being as an oddball TV reboot (you can stream the original series for free, too). Three Emmys, many Cylons and one devoted fandom later, it’s regarded as a soon-to-be classic, anchored by great performances from Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Grace Park, Katee Sackhoff, James Callis and the incredible Tricia Helfer, among others. So say we all. Rated TV-14. 74 episodes.
The Freak Brothers (2021): Based on Gilbert Shelton’s cult classic 1960s comic, "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers," this adult animated series follows three hippie stoners who smoke a magical strain of weed in 1969 and fall into a 50-year slumber, only to wake up in the 2020s. "The Freak Brothers" is a Tubi Original. Rated TV-MA. One season, 8 episodes. Featuring: Woody Harrelson, John Goodman, Tiffany Haddish, Pete Davidson, La La Anthony, Adam Devine.
Scooby-Doo Where Are You? (1969): If the kid in your life doesn’t already know this show’s iconic theme song by heart, now is the perfect time to teach them. Rated TV-G. 25 episodes.
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About the writer: Allison Shoemaker is a Chicago-based pop-culture critic and journalist. She is the author of "How TV Can Make You Smarter," and a member of the Television Critics Association and the Chicago Film Critics Association. She is also a producer and co-host for the Podlander Presents network of podcasts. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @allisonshoe. Allison is a Tomatometer-approved Top Critic on Rotten Tomatoes.