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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.