You know how it happens. We all do. At regular intervals, your employer includes a reminder about work/life balance in a memo. You don’t write back and make angry or sarcastic remarks. That would be asking for trouble. Instead, you roll your eyes, knowing that you’re obliged to check work e-mail and messages every night, on your own time, to be able to do the work the next day. Otherwise, you’d be hopelessly behind in your daily toil.
Severance (streams Apple TV+) is a series about work/life balance, but the approach is only occasionally funny, in a wry, sinister way. In fact, the show is drenched in paranoia about what corporate work does to people. The series finale is available from Friday and you can now watch all nine episodes in the perpetual state of anxiety it intends to impart, while admiring the luminously strange beauty of it all. When it began, I was reluctant to write about it, wondering where it could possibly meander and if it came into focus. It does. At this point it might the most acclaimed series of the year so far, and rightly so.
It is essentially a what-if drama. What if you could separate your work life from your home life entirely? This is what’s on-offer at the mysterious Lumon Industries, which operates out of a building that’s a maze of plain white corridors, in somewhere-America. The employees can have a brain surgery called “severance,” which results in a worker having no thoughts about the outside world while at work. Once outside, they have no memory of office life or tasks. This suits Mark Scout (Adam Scott), because he’s grieving the recent death of his wife and wants relief from that at work. His office-mates include Dylan G. (Zach Cherry) who adores being an office drone, and Irving (John Turturro), a guy so loyal to Lumon he can quote realms from the company manual. In the dramatic arena this trio inhabit, there’s deft but savage satire of corporate life.
But the arrival of newbie Helly B. (Britt Lower, who is brilliant here) upsets the equilibrium. She seems to have volunteered for “severance” surgery, but rebels against it constantly, making countless attempts to escape and reclaim her “outside” self. As part of the upset created, she causes Mark begins to believe in encounter he has with former employee Petey, who warns him about Lumon. And Irving begins a poignant friendship with fellow employee Burt G. (Christopher Walken), the least sinister person at Lumon. Meanwhile, all disturbances bring out the cold fury of executive Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), who also has a menacing henchman, one Mr. Milchick (Tramell Tillman), to enforce the rules.
Severance is at once minimalist and epic, an increasingly tense exploration of free-will and corporate sadism. It gains a thriller-like momentum as it moves along, and can be disturbing enough to be nightmarish, yet still maintains a modicum of mischievous wit. Written by newcomer Dan Erickson, with all episodes directed by Ben Stiller and Irish director Aoife McArdle, it has stunning visuals and is as profoundly paranoid about the workplace as you want it to be.
Also airing/streaming thus weekend – The Canadian Screen Awards (Sunday, CBC, CBC Gem, 8 p.m.) is the pared-down climax to a week of handing out CSAs. No live audience, no red-carpet glamour and hosted by comedy troupe Tallboyz, it’s a bit of a mystery package. Sort Of (streams CBC Gem right now) is deservedly the most-nominated show, with the final season of Kim’s Convenience not far behind. Expect a lot of clips from shows to get you interested if you are curious, and don’t expect controversy or shenanigans.
CBC Docs POV: Rare Bird Alert (Sunday, CBC 9 p.m.) is a repeat of a gem of a doc, a charming and relevant look at birding. It’s mainly about “punk rock birder Paul Riss,” who lives in Hamilton, Ont., and is a long-time devotee of birding. He will drop everything to race out to see a rare bird in his area. He also has the Latin names of more than 240 birds tattooed on his body. The “punk rock” element is a tad overdone, but this lovely doc celebrates birding as the obsession goes mainstream. It also rather niftily connects birding to the personal witnessing of climate change.
inally, Elite (streams Netflix) returns with a new season. A big cult hit, it’s no masterpiece but is one of those oddly satisfying, binge-worthy curiosities. It’s set at a prep school for the elite in Spain, but rather than emphasize the usual tropes of high-school drama, its main thrust is the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Romance, murder and teen angst is the gist.
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