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Severance | Apple TV+’s Surprise Hit Crafted a New Language in Sci-Fi

Corporate dystopia? Black comedy? Satire on the work/life balance? Ben Stiller’s sleeper hit Severance is a new language in science fiction.

There has been so much buzz this year about Apple TV+’s Severance. Directed by Ben Stiller, written by Dan Erickson, and starring Adam Scott, the show has been described as a ‘genre-bending original’ and placed everywhere from dystopian sci-fi to ‘black comedy’. As a result, the show has managed to impressively straddle both mainstream culture while grabbing the interest of sci-fi audiences. Nothing better illustrates Severance’s universal appeal than the fact that it was both the star of 2022’s San Diego Comic-Con, and managed to pull in 14 nominations for the 73rd Primetime Emmy awards. 

As usual, I was predictably late to the party with the show. When I finally came to my senses and finished my weekend binge of series one, I was left with this explosive feeling in my sci-fi fanbones that I had just witnessed a new evolution in the sci-fi genre. 

If you’re curious as to how, then read on.. (and of course, here’s the playlist to go along) 

What’s Severance about?

With my dutiful reminder that this article contains spoilers, Severance is based on the idea that creator Dan Erickson had while slugging away at a dull corporate career. One day, he wondered what it would feel like if you could ‘wish away’ eight hours of your working day. 

Severance’s main protagonist is Mark S. (Adam Scott) who, following the death of his wife, elects to undergo a procedure known as ‘severance’. When Mark shows up for work as a ‘microdata refiner’ (MDR) at the mysterious company ‘Lumon Industries’ and descends in the elevator to the basement ‘severed’ floor, a little chip in his head is activated and he forgets everything about his personal life. At 5 pm he ascends back to the ground floor, with no recollection of his working day. In effect, what Lumon’s ‘severance’ procedure creates, is what becomes colloquially known as ‘innies’ and ‘outies’; different versions of self, split into work and home personas. 

Helly R., wearing a blue jumper and pale brown skirt, sits at her desk looking at a photograph.
Lumon Industries newcomer Helly R. (Britt Lower) in Severance. Lower was awarded Best Actress in a Streaming Series, Drama in the Hollywood Critics Association Television Awards for the role. | Apple TV+, 2022.

The nine-episode arc follows Mark onboard reluctant new trainee Helly R. (Britt Lower), and how her rebellious attitude to the rules and regulation at Lumon, trigger a chain of events leading not only Mark but his MDR co-workers Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry) to question the motives of their employer and attempt to get to the bottom of their mysterious roles at the company.

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Ben Stiller: The Sci-Fi ‘Bricoler’ Behind Severance

If science fiction is defined as a “genre of speculative fiction that contains imagined elements that don’t exist in the real world” Severance is, at heart, a deeply sci-fi show. However, in the way that it has been created, the themes it explores, and the aesthetics it has deployed, Severance does not easily fit into an existing sci-fi genre and, as the critics have found, any mainstream one. 

Although Dan Erickson coined the original concept, much of the show’s ‘tone’ and genre-bending success can be attributed to the intuition of Ben Stiller. When Patricia Arquette was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter on her role as the shows leading antagonist (Lumon’s mid-level manager Harmony Corbel) she admitted her confusion about what type of program she was involved in.

“It was hard to understand what the tone was […] There were things that we tried that were sillier, funnier […] but I just really believed Ben.. ” 

Despite his decade-long career as a successful comedic actor, Ben Stiller only began his directing debut in a 2013 reboot of the 1947 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The roots of Severance’s cinematography are all over this movie, from the nordic locations to the beautiful scoring of Theodore Shapiro. As illustrated by his iterative approach to the development of the series, there has been something important growing in Stiller’s mind that started with the themes behind Water Mitty and, when combined with the talented team he assembled, finally accumulated into the culturally significant piece of art that is Severance. 

Milchick (Tramell Tillman), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), Helly R. (Britt Lower), and Mark S. (Adam Scott) stand around their office cubicles.
Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman), Dylan (Zach Cherry), Irving (John Turturro), Helly R. (Britt Lower), and Mark S. (Adam Scott) in Severance. The show was partly inspired by an online urban legend (or creepypasta) called The Backrooms – an endless maze of dated office space. | Apple TV+, 2022.

Although I can’t believe I’m attributing the future of sci-fi to Ben Stiller, what I believe has resulted is a form of ‘sci-fi bricolage’; a philosophical concept and artist practice deriving from the French word ‘bricoler’ (to tinker). Using the bricolage practice of borrowing from precedents of the past, I’m certain the creative team behind Severance, with Stiller at the helm, has stolen from several key sci-fi subgenres of the past to form something entirely new and culturally pertinent.

From MDF to ‘MDR’ – A Journey in Science Fiction Bricolage 

The subgenres of sci-fi have matured as distinct genres, generating unique subcultures and fandoms throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. There are no universal definitions for the categories; a ‘brief’ Wikipedia search suggests there might be as many as 48 distinctive subgenres. While I wish we could go through them all here (trust me, I tried), ‘experts agree’ that there are around 8-10 established ‘traditional’ subgenres (think fantasy/supernatural/superhero) with around a handful more emerging since the noughties. 

When I was left with my sci-fi spider senses tingling after watching, I went on my own little sub-genre odyssey and found four precedent subgenres that Severance has drawn on and learned from. 

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The Influence of Cerebral SF on Severance

While more traditional science fiction subgenres focus on traveling through ‘time’ or ‘space’, cerebral science fiction is the subgenre concerned with ‘traveling’ through the depths of the human mind; exploring everything from the human conception of memory, our experience with time and, most interestingly, our battle between our conscious and subconscious. 

Thomas Anderson answers a cellphone at his desk in a dreary office cubicle.
Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) receives a warning call as the Agents raid his workplace in The Matrix. | Warner Bros, 1999.

There’s no doubt that the Wachoiski sisters’ 1999 globally successful The Matrix is the irrefutable queen of cerebral science fiction. The Matrix is not only a brilliant metaphor for the trans experience but explores huge philosophical, existential conceptions of how humankind creates meaning and reality. It is a master in cerebral sci-fi simply because it made us consciously reflect on our existence in society. How do we define meaning? What are the important things in life? Perhaps most importantly; what rules societal rules are we accepting that we don’t need to:

“What you must learn is these rules are no different to the rules of a computer. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken. Understand?”

Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Severance is a student of The Matrix. It’s no surprise really; Stiller is a known fan of the franchise. But while The Matrix is asking us to focus our attention on our perception of society, Severance is more concerned with our perception of ourselves.  In the opening line of the pilot episode, Mark S. asks a newly ‘severed’ and adjusting Helly R. ‘Who are you?’ As Stiller has himself confirmed, this is the show’s core thematic concept; what is it that comprises our human identity? 

Mark has chosen a life at Lumon to cope with his grief from losing his wife. At Lumon his ‘innie’ is ordered, perky, while in the real world, outtie Mark’s world is full of loneliness, and despair with heavy drinking thrown in. Mark has chosen a severed life to hide from the grief he carries. However, it is through the character of Helly R. (Britt Lower) that Severance manages to most brilliantly explore who we are with and without our memories, heritage, and experience. 

Helly R. viewed from above as she lies on a conference table.
Helly R. (Britt Lower) awakes on the conference table at the start of the show. Severance was nominated for seven Primetime Emmy Awards in 2022, although it failed to win. | Apple TV+, 2022.

When Helly R. wakes up on the conference table fresh from her severance procedure, a new part of herself is born. Aside from her name, Helly has no memories of her life and, as a result, learns that this version of her conscious self can only ever exist on the basement floor of Lumon. We eventually learn that ‘in the outside’ world Helly is the daughter of the current Lumon CEO and a forceful advocate of the severance procedure. The perspectives and actions of Helly’s outtie are a far cry from the rebellious, skeptical nature of her innie. Here we realize that Stiller’s team is playing with the idea of who you would be like if you were suddenly liberated, or in Mark’s opposite case, torn away from, the people that shape you. 

There is also a darker cerebral concept lurking within Helly’s character. When she becomes unconvinced by this ‘severed existence’ and tries (increasingly desperate attempts) to leave, we see a very literal representation of self-abuse. Outtie Helly wants to be at Lunom, Inner Helly does not; the duality of self begins. Britt Lower is brilliant in interpreting the deeper meaning behind this;

“It’s such a human thing to be at odds with ourselves. In Helly’s inner and outie experience… you watch a character literally wage a war against herself… but I think that’s so relatable. We do speak to ourselves in our own heads in a manner that we would never imagine speaking to someone else… it’s heartbreaking how cruel we are to ourselves.”

In the spirit of cerebral SF, Severance is asking us clever questions about who and what we let influence and mold us and, ever so importantly, think twice about how we treat ourselves (even the parts we don’t like).  

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The Influence of Mundane SF on Severance

Another influence lurking behind the Severance bricolage is a more recent addition to the sci-fi annuals. Mundane SF (MSF) developed as a subgenre in the early 2000s. Legend goes that during the ‘The Clarion West 2004 Class’ (a yearly development scheme for SF writers) novelist Geoff Ryman developed the “Mundane Manifesto”, in response to growing distaste among emerging writers of the more ‘fantastical’ elements of science fiction.

Wormholes, warp drives, interplanetary travel, and communication with aliens seemed “wish fulfillment fantasies” to the Clarion class of 2004. Furthermore, the MSF founders worried that dreaming of the vastness and improbable abundance of the galaxy could “encourage a wasteful attitude to the abundance that is here on Earth.” In throwing sterile tropes (Area 52, flying saucers, “aliens who speak English”) on the proverbial bonfire, MSF firmly stated, “The most likely future is one in which we only have ourselves and this planet”. 

The arrival of MSF chimed with the mass consciousness of climate change. The infamous hockey stick graph had been published in 1999, and the western world was in a familiar period of skeptical backlash when, in 2001, George W. Bush removed the US from the Kyoto Protocol. The introduction of MSF, therefore, came at a moment when the genre needed to help an entire generation ‘wake up’ to the realities of climate change. 

The earth-bound limitation of the genre focuses the storytelling on ‘real and present’ threats, facing humankind and draws imaginary futures by pulling on true horrors of the past and present. In this way, MDF shares distinctive features of dystopian writing (which can be considered a genre in it’s own right). Some works falling into the MSF genre include; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), and more recently, The Circle (2013) a novel by Dave Eggers that was adapted into a 2017 film starring Emma Watson about new trainees introduction to life as part of an overbearing tech company (sound familiar?)

The fact that the rollercoaster of Severance takes place almost entirely within one floor of a corporate office building would make the Clarion West class of 2004 deeply proud. There are no wormholes, parallel dimensions, or even, despite its nod to the Walcolskis’, a race of machines subjugating mankind. Indeed, rumors have it Dan Erickson’s original version of the script had more of a surreal, fantastical tint to it. Stiller’s cut, and the trial-and-error approach to the shoot, have seen the overall feel of the show fall into a future or a reality that could well be ours. 

A waxwork model of Lumon Industries CEO Jame Eagen stands in the corner of a grey, concrete room, flanked by quotes from the company's founder Kier Eagan.
A wax model of the current CEO of Lumon Industries, Jame Eagan (Michael Siberry), with a number of his maxims from his predecessor and possibly ancestor, Kier Eagan. | Apple TV+, 2022.

The cult-like references that permeate the show lean Severance strongly into the dystopian lens often characteristic of MSF. From the beginning of the series, we see that life in Lumon goes beyond the necessary office etiquette. As Lumon Industries’ visionary founder, the ‘wisdom’ and principles of Kier Eagan govern employee behavior. From his huge stone portrait welcoming employees each morning, his ‘teachings’ set out in the staff handbook (although at least there’s a tote to go with it) to the rather bizarre replica house in the “perpetuity wing” Kier is the face of control throughout Lumon. 

While this might seem a little fantastical, in a way it actually isn’t. In her brilliant 2021 expose Cultish: The Language of Fantascism, Amanda Montell manages to show how throughout the 20th century modern susceptibility to cults has moved from ‘religion’ (although, unfortunately, that still exists) to modern corporations. 

By taking an MSF approach to world-building, Severance has been able to make a very relatable, urgent comment on the ‘cult-like’ control of corporate companies; making the point to wider audiences than sci-fi usually enjoys and hitting home in a way that some more fantastical storytelling don’t achieve. The fact that Apple TV streams the show is part hilarious and part deeply disturbing; a meta mindfuck that keeps me awake at night…

The Influence of Steampunk on Severance 

Steampunk has been carving itself out as a sub-genre boss since the Victorian era. Defined as fiction involving “an era or world where steam power is still widely used… that incorporates prominent elements of science fiction and fantasy” the term was developed in 1987 by author K.W.Jeter. Of course, the roots of the genre are in the great authors of the 19th century, including Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Typically, a steampunk work features ‘anachronistic’ technologies; that is – the ‘steam’ world of Victorian technological development contrasted with the authors’ imagined technology of the future (often termed ‘retrofuturistic’; think Well’s Martian monsters, or more obscurely, Robert DeNiro’s flying pirate ship in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust movie adaption). While Steampunk started out in SF, it is probably better known now as a subculture itself, strongly defined by fashion and music. Interestingly, one of the commonalities of the Steampunk subculture is “modding’; a hobby that involves remaking everyday items to appear as if they are from the steampunk era (just add brass, gears, and leathers).

Irving and Mark S. peer out from behind a partition. A vintage 1970s-style computer is on the desk in front of them.
Mark S. (Adam Scott) and Irving (John Turturro) in Severance, with a vintage computer in the foreground. The anachronistic mixture of vintage technologies helped to create a sense of unease in the show. | Apple TV+, 2022.

In Severance you’ll notice that the technology used throughout the innie’s world is playfully retrofuturistic’. Technology-wise, it pulls from the 80s with its handbuilt Micro Data processing computers, muddles things with cassette recording devices from the 70s, and what looks to be an early Video CD, first released in 1993. As for the general office aesthetic, we could be anywhere from the late 1950s to 1960s, with the stunning atrium of the building modeled on Eero Saarinen’s Bell Labs, a modernist R&D building completed in 1962, New Jersey. In such late 20th-century technology choices, I’d argue that production designer Jeremy Hindle and set designer Andrew Baseman have inadvertently borrowed from the steampunk practice of “modding.”

For me, the whole aesthetic of the innie’s world at Lumon does two things. It reinforces the unique semiotics of Lumon’s cult-like identity, but it also deeply grounds the series in steampunk philosophy. By taking things back to a less digital, more magnetic recording era, the entire aesthetic sticks the ‘royal V’ up to the sleek digital world in true Steampunk fashion. Like the countercultural hipster walking down the street with their cassette player, Severance is severing us serious punk attitude; a rebellion hidden in objects.  

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The Influence of Hopepunk on Severance  

The hopepunk genre was coined by author Alexandra Rowland in a 2017 Tumblr post that simply stated “Hopepunk is the opposite of grimdark, pass it on”. In its essence, Hopepunk expresses a certain ‘fed-up-ness’ with ‘Game of Thrones-esque’ storylines, where everyone either ends up dead (or is responsible for everyone else ending up dead). She defines it as:

“Hopepunk says that kindness and softness don’t equal weakness and that in this world of brutal cynicism and nihilism, being kind is a political act. An act of rebellion.”

For Rowland, hopepunk isn’t ‘naive’. It recognizes the reality of life and the dreadful, shitty unfairness of the system we live in. But it also believes in the counterattack through kindness and love, in the ways we can. Hopepunk doesn’t believe in happily ever after, but it believes in trying for now.

If there was ever a poster boy for the hopepunk movement, it is Spiderman. Whatever version of the Spiderman franchise is your favorite, you’ll see either Peter Parker or more recently, Miles Morales, go through considerable trauma; usually involving the sudden loss of a loved one. Yet, both characters repeatedly return to their calling with dogged determinism. The continued reincarnation of the Spiderverse underlines an important dimension to the subgenre; this life is never-ending. We will continue to fight the same struggles, there is no final moment of ‘triumph’, but rather a sequence of moments where you get to choose to make things better.

Although the world of Mark’s outtie is filled with sadness and rage, his ever-present relationship with his sister, Dylan (Zach Cherry), and brother-in-law Ricken (Michael Chernus), is a powerful redemptive force. The humorous fact that Dylan and Mark are accidentally coached in their resistance by Ricken, the self-help author that outtie Mark has cultivated a friendly disdain for, is a comment on the power of friendship to reach through even great depths of psychological trauma and evil. 

Burt G. and Irving examine a painting.
Head of Optics and Design, Burt G, (Christopher Walken) and Irving (John Turturro), the star-crossed lovers of Severance. Turturro reportedly recommended Walken for the role. | Apple TV+, 2022.

In the same way, there is great loneliness at the heart of the character of Irving, the most experienced of the MDR team. We get to know Irving as a regimented, faithful Kier follower who, night after night obsessively paints haunting depictions of the approach to the elevator that goes to the ominous “Testing Floor”. Yet, in a fleeting moment, Irving (John Turturro)’s encounter with Head of Optics and Design, Burt G. (Christopher Walken), he is changed. In their small encounters over the various artworks scattered across Lumon’s severed floor, Burt and Irving fall in love. Irving’s feelings for Burt are absolutely key in his transformation from a complacent victim, to an agent of resistance. 

In the closing of the series, when our MDR team discovers that an ‘Overtime contingency protocol’ can momentarily ‘wake up their innie’ in the outside world, the tone of the whole series starts to change. We start to see a friendship founded on authentic resistance cement between Dyan, Irving, Helly, and Mark. As Mark watches Helly’s self-inflicted abuse play out in front of him, as Irving experiences the joy of Burt and Dylan realizes he has children he can never meet, each awakens to the horrors of Lumon. Now they must work together, to unearth exactly what Lumon is up to and, in the words of an ‘awakening’ Irving “burn this place to the ground.”

Mark S. and Helly R. stand facing each other outside of an elevator.
Mark S. (Adam Scott) and Helly R. (Britt Lower) in Severance. | Apple TV+, 2022.

Although Severance asks us to look at the realities of what structures and institutions in this world can do to us, it never takes us to the verge of bleakness. Ultimately, Severance is a story about love and friendship. It’s defiantly hopepunk. 

Why does Severance matter?

The combination of Dan Erickson’s genius question, the exploration of a ridiculously talented cast and creative team, and Ben Stiller’s artist palette and intuition, has created a truly original work that has carved out a new space or language within sci-fi. Using a bricolage philosophy, it has pulled on the strengths of pre-existing subgenres to create something more of the sum of those parts.

By what has it created and why does it matter?

From the cerebral genre, Severance has learned how to question. It’s a show that’s asking us to think critically about who or what has shaped our identity and ultimately, it asks us to consider treating others, and ourselves, with compassion. From the practice of the Mundane manifesto, it screams at us to ‘WAKE UP’ to the forces that continue to suppress our agency, and the agency of others, on the only planet that’s our home. Then, borrowing from its punk parents, it tells us to do something about it; with kindness, love, and companionship at the heart of that resistance. 

I think it’s kinda obvious why that matters. As we grow older into the 2020s, as climate change becomes an increasingly ever-present danger, as our agency within a hyper-tech-dependent monopolized capital system diminishes, and as our tolerance for those who look different from others just doesn’t seem to improve, we need art that helps us stay critical, yet hopeful, like a lifeline.

That’s the power of this type of sci-fi, it’s the language of hopeful revolution.

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Alanna is a Non Binary Brit telling stories for the stage, screen, and webpage. Alanna lives in London and writes musings on the overlooked influence of queer thought across TV/film, sci-fi and pop culture, over at Queer Notes.

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