Review: ‘Severance’ is my favorite drama nominated at Sunday’s SAG Awards

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Severance' on Apple TV+

The 29th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards are Sunday night in Los Angeles, where Outstanding TV Drama Series will be a battle between HBO’s “The White Lotus,” Netflix’s “The Crown” and the final seasons of both AMC’s “Better Call Saul” and Netflix’s “Ozark.”

And yet, deep down, I’m rooting for the Apple TV+ series “Severance” to land an upset.

That probably isn’t going to happen — it only won for Main Title Design and Score at the Emmy Awards despite 14 nominations last fall — but I would cheer out loud if it did. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend binge-watching it before Sunday’s SAG Awards.

Created by Dan Erickson, the sci-fi series explores an extreme case of work-life balance. Set in the near future, a biotech corporation, Lumon Industries, uses a special mindwipe procedure to “sever” its employees’ consciousness between work and personal lives. When the workers begin to question their existence, they uncover a web of conspiracy.

Nominated for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series, Adam Scott carries the load as Mark S., who portrays the best character arc of the series. Scott’s quiet demeanor and subtle mannerisms convince us that he’s evolving from a dutiful employee to a skeptical populist who gradually wonders why his best friend, Petey Kilmer (Yul Vazquez), was abruptly fired.

Petey’s replacement, Helly R., is played with unflinching determination by Britt Lower as a cynical new arrival who fights back from the very start when she wakes up on a table and smashes Scott with a speaker. She feels so trapped in the office that she makes multiple heartbreaking attempts to sneak messages outside, begging her real-world self to free her.

Glancing over the cubicles is Zach Cherry, who provides comic relief as Dylan G., a pencil pusher who loves video games and comic books. Best of all is John Turturro as Irving Bailiff, a by-the-book company man who thaws when he develops feelings for upper-floor designer Burt Goodman, played by Christopher Walken with brilliant scenes of longing.

The ensemble’s camaraderie grows amid the daily monotony of staring at numbers on computers like magic-eye puzzles. We have no clue what their clicks do — they could launch drone strikes for all we know — but if they falter, they’re reprimanded in another room, forced to repeat ad-nauseam slogans by Lumon’s cult-like founder, Kier Eagan.

Lead antagonist Patricia Arquette shows a sinister side as boss Harmony Cobel, who lives undercover as Mark’s neighbor, Mrs. Selvig. She recalls Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) with henchman Seth Milchick (Tramel Tillman), security chief Doug Graner (Michael Cumpsty) and wellness counselor Ms. Casey (Dichen Lachman).

On the outside of Lumon Industries, Jen Tullock provides exposition as Mark’s pregnant sister Devon, who helps fill in Mark’s tragic backstory. Her husband Ricken Hale (Michael Chernus) is the author of a self-help book that is cheesy in the real world but reads like Karl Marx’s profound “Communist Manifesto” to the enslaved workers kept in captivity.

Mark’s internal monologues while reading his brother-in-law’s smuggled chapters are laugh-out-loud hilarious, a surprising element to the otherwise serious tone of the series. There are several examples of this throughout, namely how the severed workers are called “innies” and “outies” like some sort of belly-button humor amid a cerebral sci-fi thriller.

Thus, it should be no surprise that six episodes are directed by Ben Stiller, who initially read it as a workplace comedy before mining the dramatic elements. Stiller directs the first three episodes with long tracking shots down a maze of hallways, followed by Aoife McArdle directing the middle three episodes and Stiller returning for the final three.

The Season 1 finale will blow you away with the best cliffhanger in recent memory. In fact, it’s a triple cliffhanger of three parallel stories, each of which has us shouting at the screen for the characters to hurry up. When the screen cuts to black, you’ll stand up clapping and immediately Google to see when Season 2 arrives (later this year with release date TBD).

Until then, can we manifest an upset victory at the SAG Awards on Sunday? Probably not. The momentum isn’t there based on previous award shows and current odds makers. Maybe we can perform a “severance” procedure on voters to cast ballots for the Apple series before their other selves realize what happened. Innies vs. outies, baby!

5 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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