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Brain surgery separates memories of work life from personal life in 'Severence'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Now, a lot of us may have a work self and a real self. But in the new Apple series, "Severance," a group of office workers are experiencing that idea at a whole other level. The show stars Adam Scott, Patricia Arquette and John Turturro, among others. "Severance" is a workplace satire, but it's also a futuristic thought experiment about identity, as well as a drama about the dimensions of grief. The hosts of NPR's podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon, spoke with Vulture TV critic Roxana Hadadi and writer Chris Klimek about the new series. Here's Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: So "Severance" was created by writer Dan Erickson. But the big creative name that's been most associated with it has been Ben Stiller, who is an executive producer and the director of some of the episodes, including the opener, in which you kind of learn about this whole world. The idea is that this company, which is called Lumon, has employees going through a process called severance. And severance is brain surgery. It makes it so that when you're at work, you don't remember anything about your life outside the building and vice versa. So when you're at home, you don't really know who your colleagues are, for example. You have no memory of them. And when you're at work, you don't even have any idea whether you have kids or anything like that. It's as if your regular self is just unconscious when you're at work. And your work self is unconscious when you're at home, if that makes sense.

Glen, you liked "Severance," right?

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: I did, man. It is weird. It is stylish. It is darkly funny. And it is sharply satirical. And I use that word advisedly to contrast it to being broadly satirical, which is to say, this could very easily be a show about how corporations are dehumanizing and exploitative. But we don't need that show. We are all collectively living that show. And also, we've had that show. Remember "Better Off Ted"?

All of this show's satiric energy is being channeled into building out the very weird world of - not of corporate America but of this very specific corporation in America - its history, its lore, its structures. It's got a look and feel that's all its own. And, I think, importantly, it can turn on a dime tonally. So yeah, 10s, 10s, 10s across the board for me.

HOLMES: Nice. Excellent. How about you, Roxana?

ROXANA HADADI: Yeah. I very much am a sucker for what Glen said we've already gone through before. I love a corporations-are-bad TV show. But this show takes it so much deeper than that in terms of evaluating, how do corporations build the myth? And so there is sort of a cult element here, which I'm also a sucker for (laughter). So I really like that we - you know, we're going deeper into this idea of, how do companies evaluate the worth of their employees, how much their employees are giving to them? And there's been a lot in the marketing about, what if work-life balance were literal? - which I think is sort of a pithy way to explain what the show is doing. But for me, as a viewer, it did raise all these questions of, well, when I'm at work, I do talk about my personal life. And when I'm at home, I do talk about work. And so when you set up that binary, what does that do? Does it give you freedom back as a person to be able to divide your life like that? Or is that not even possible in the world in which we live, to really set up those boundaries? But overall, yes, I am a very strong pro.

HOLMES: Yeah. I shared your sense when I first heard about this, that it might be, like, cubicle yuks. Like, I think, which is sort of what you're both referring to, like, that it might be that kind of, like, offices are bad and boring and glum. But I do think it gets a lot more interesting than that. Chris, what did you think?

CHRIS KLIMEK: Well, it's the boring tyranny of consensus, Linda, because I loved this show. I love things that take a very mundane, human, common experience and give it sort of a elaborate, fantastical genre explanation. In this case, it's that kind of fracture we all feel between our workplace selves and our home selves, like Roxana was saying, you know? I think of something like - the movie "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is like that, where it's just like, how can you ever really know your spouse? Well, they're - what if they were really a secret assassin? I mean, that's a, you know, movie with a dodgy reputation, but it's a similar kind of thing.

HOLMES: I think for the most part, you do get this sense of, like, so in this really difficult world that these people live in, they've made this decision - you know, sometimes because of general conditions in the world, sometimes because of conditions in their lives - to be able to go to work and just shut themselves off. And, you know, Erickson - Dan Erickson, who wrote the show, talked about this being - he originally had a very kind of drudgery-type job and thought, I would really prefer to just shut myself off and just be essentially an automaton for the next eight hours and then just go home. I think most people who have had really boring jobs - like, that makes a certain amount of sense. But it does become kind of this - it's a work satire, but it's also this, like, really interesting kind of exploration of the self.

WELDON: Yeah, it's about something. It's about who we are at our core, who we'd be if we hadn't spent a lifetime being shaped by memories and experiences and social interactions. It is about moral philosophy in much the same way that "The Good Place" was, except that it's all implicit here. In "The Good Place," you know, Chidi would break off into response groups, and everybody would talk about moral philosophy. Here, it's in the infrastructure. It's what the show's about in a real way.

And while, you know, Dan Erickson has had a string of meaningless office jobs, as many of us have, you know, Ben Stiller's in showbiz. He's always been in showbiz, so this world can - probably seems very unfamiliar to him. And maybe that's why the show threads the needle - a very specific needle - that I think it does. It comes from a place of deep knowledge of the subject, but the directorial perspective is one of a complete outsider. So that's maybe why I can find and highlight and really live in the absurdity of all this.

HADADI: And I think the strength of the writing is that there are all these elements that seem very simultaneously disparate but on their face, like, meaningless. We haven't really talked about what this team does, but they, like, analyze a spreadsheet for numbers that feel wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEVERANCE")

ADAM SCOTT: (As Mark) Now, all the data you see falls into one of four essential categories, and we group each line of code and then sort it evenly between five digital buckets.

BRITT LOWER: (As Helly) Party.

SCOTT: (As Mark) Just poke around first. Use the arrows.

HADADI: And these things don't make sense, right? Like, there is no world in which we could look at these items and be like, oh, yeah, like, that reminds me of what I did in my office. But the importance that these tasks are given from management and how indecipherable they are to the workers doing them - I think that is a feeling that is very evocative and relatable for most of us. And I sort of like that we're in a place right now - not where every TV show feels like "Lost," because we've all sort of outgrown that, like, everything's a mystery. But I do think that sort of sprinkling these things in and inviting discussion and inviting analysis makes it fun.

HOLMES: I also want to call out Tramell Tillman, who plays Milchick, who is this, like, office manager. He helps administer this bizarre system of incentives that they have for getting different things done and how, you know, Dylan is at the beginning, very proudly showing off his finger traps and his...

KLIMEK: Motivating adults with these sort of infantile prizes - that was another thing that felt very...

HOLMES: Yeah.

KLIMEK: ...True to me (laughter)...

HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah.

KLIMEK: ...Like, actually, like, lived white-collar experience - not - you know, from Erickson, not Stiller, but yeah.

HOLMES: Right, exactly. It's that thing of like, he's very proud of these caricature portraits of him that he has won. And, like, you probably have not gotten caricature portraits, but you've probably got something where you're like, is this my reward? Like, is this my incentive, my prize for good performance?

All right. Well, we want to know what you think about "Severance." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. Glen Weldon, Roxana Hadadi, Chris Klimek, thank you all for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

HADADI: Thank you.

KLIMEK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.