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'Severance' puts a witty, unsettling spin on the office drama

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new TV series "Severance," Adam Scott stars as the employee of a company that has figured out a strange, futuristic way of dealing with the problem of work-life balance. The show, which begins Friday on Apple TV+, was produced and mostly directed by Ben Stiller. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says that it offers an engrossingly original look at how work shapes and deforms us.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in the 20th century, there was optimism about the future of work. In their different ways, both capitalists and communists liked to imagine a world in which people would be freed from the tyranny of arduous, repetitive, soul-killing jobs. Such utopian dreams seem a long way off in these days when our minds and pop culture run more easily to visions of dystopia. You find one of the creepier visions in "Severance," a new series from Apple TV+ that puts a wittily unsettling spin on the office drama.

Created by newcomer Dan Erickson and spearheaded by Ben Stiller, who directed six episodes, this offbeat thriller is a weird cross between an absurdist, anti-corporate satire and "Brave New World." It conjures a world in which employees of a cult-like corporation named Lumon voluntarily undergo a procedure that severs their work memories from their nonwork memories. At the office, they know and remember nothing about their lives outside work, while at home, they know and remember nothing about what happens at the office.

Adam Scott stars as Mark, a onetime history professor who joined Lumon to flee his grief over his wife's death. As the story begins, his boss, inscrutably played by Patricia Arquette, makes him the new head of his tiny department. There, he oversees three other members - fussy Irving, touchingly played by John Turturro, for whom Lumon rules are gospel, tech savvy Dylan - that's Zach Cherry - an inveterate wiseacre, and a new hire, Helly, played with frazzled drollery by Britt Lower.

The four of them pass their days looking at numbers crossing a computer screen and - they don't know why - erasing some of them. At 5 o'clock, Mark retreats to his lonely, cookie-cutter suburban home, where he drinks too much. He's stuck, until one night he's approached by a desperate figure who claims that he knew Mark in the office at Lumon. Suddenly, the solid wall between Mark's two worlds starts to crumble. It also begins crumbling at work when Helly proves to be a rebel who desperately wants to quit Lumon. Good luck with that. When Helly's resignation request is denied, she comes to Mark, whose response might have been scripted by Kafka.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEVERANCE")

BRITT LOWER: (As Helly) So I'll never leave here.

ADAM SCOTT: (As Mark) You'll leave at 5. Well, actually, they stagger our exits, so 5:15. But it won't feel like it, not to this version of you anyway.

LOWER: (As Helly) Do I have a family?

SCOTT: (As Mark) You'll never know.

LOWER: (As Helly) I have no choice.

SCOTT: (As Mark) Well, every time you find yourself here, it's because you chose to come back.

POWERS: He's both right and wrong. Helly does choose to come back but only because her outer-world self, known as an outie, isn't able to realize how much her work self, or innie, thinks her job is a prison. Although "Severance" is lighter than Stiller's award-winning series "Escape From Dannemora," the show reminds us that his work is most interesting when he taps into the darker reaches of the psyche. He and co-director Aoife McArdle get crackerjack work from a terrific cast, from Scott's sympathetic portrait of a decent but lost everyman to Tramell Tillman's sinisterly amusing performance as a Lumon overseer who appears dissociated from everything he says.

Now, "Severance" could probably be shorter, and some of its twists are less inspired than others, yet the show is filled with nifty touches. I love the interiors of the Lumon building, whose architects were seemingly told copy the Apple aesthetic but on the cheap. I love the way characters keep walking through a maze of white hallways, reinforcing how Lumon gives them punishments and rewards like laboratory animals. And I love the sly little bits of business, like the show's brilliant use of a hokey self-help book. Revealing its secrets in a measured way, "Severance" builds to a season finale that's bursting with both irony and emotion.

What gives the show its sting is the way that Mark and his comrades' story tap so engrossingly into the anxieties that, even in post-COVID working conditions, many people feel about their jobs - how companies try to own us, how employees feel like cogs in corporate machines that they fear may be actually ruining the world, how many people bury themselves in work to avoid dealing with the difficulties of their personal lives and how many of us already live a de facto version of "Severance." We have two different selves, one for work, where we play a role, and one for home, where, if we don't feel depleted, we can be who we really are.

If all of this makes "Severance" sound bleak, don't worry. Taut and often amusing, the series is not a hymn to hopelessness. Mark and his co-workers may be caught in a dystopian workplace, but over the course of the season, they come to see that another way of life is possible.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new TV series "Severance," which begins Friday on Apple TV+. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the battle in state legislatures over the future of American democracy. A new report says lawmakers in 27 states are considering hundreds of bills designed to limit voting or undermine the integrity of the election process. We'll speak with Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.