High-concept sci-fi has to be one of my favourite sub-genres of all time. It requires you to think, but when done right it can produce some truly mind-bending stuff. In comes Severance, a jaw-dropping first season of TV that’s smartly-written, spine-chilling and deeply compelling – hitting on the level of Westworld’s incredible first season.
Severance may have released way back towards the start of 2022, but I’ve finally gotten around to it and all I can say is WOW! The level of genius behind this narrative is off the charts. Creator Dan Erickson has built a brilliant piece of intelligent sci-fi off the back of a compelling concept that’ll instantly suck you in. The concept itself is easy to understand, kicking off with a team of employees who have surgically isolated their memories between their work and personal lives. From the outside looking in, it’s relatively simple, but on the inside it’s loaded with layers just waiting to be peeled back and tonnes of secrets on the verge of being uncovered. There’s so much mystery surrounding the layered narrative and shady characters that it’ll have your brain on overdrive as you try to piece together this mind-bending puzzle.
My goal here is to reveal absolutely no information about the story beyond that initial concept. The experience of unraveling this mystery is akin to unwrapping a gift on Christmas morning, and having that gift be exactly what you had on your wish list. One thing I love about how this narrative unfolds is that so many cool details and morsels of information are casually and creatively dropped through random character conversations. These details may not be crucial to understanding the crux of what’s going on, but they add depth to the story and reward those who pay attention.
I also need to commend the perfect pacing – it’s never rushing and never dragging through any random inconsequential subplots. It’s always focused on moving the plot forward and constantly developing the characters as new information comes to light. No matter which character is in the limelight, it always feels like it’s working towards a common goal and converging on a big climax. This is great because it builds tension and keeps you locked in at all times. Speaking of the climax, the payoff to this season’s narrative makes for one of the most satisfying conclusions to a season since that first season of Westworld. With revelations aplenty, the season finale is one of the best episodes of TV this year and beyond.
The sheer amount of meaningful character development that is squeezed into these nine episodes is insane to think about. The growth of each of our leads is seen clear as day when contrasting where they are at the beginning and end of the season. It just goes to show the attention to detail placed in writing every character’s respective journey and ensuring their arcs are all rewarding in the end.
The writing of the characters is wonderfully complemented by the slate of great performances behind them. I can’t pinpoint who I enjoyed watching more since everyone was just so damn captivating. Let me kick off with Adam Scott, who is awesome in the lead role and gets stronger as time goes on. In the pilot his performance seemed one-dimensional, not in a bad way, just in a way that was different to see from a lead role. The subtle emotional complexity in his performance came as his character also grew. He’s accompanied by the likes of John Turturro, Britt Lower, Patricia Arquette, Dichen Lachman and Christopher Walken, who are all fantastic. They impressively disappear into their roles and had me completely hooked whenever any of them were on screen.
I also want to commend one of the most unlikely directors for this high-concept piece of sci-fi, Ben Stiller. Forget the silly Zoolander humour, Ben Stiller’s surprising dramatic turn proves he’s got more to give than ridiculous gags. He directs this series in a way that allows the cinematography, score, visuals and story to work in unison – formulating a final product that really is the full package. The blinding-white set design and cinematography blend to beautifully exhibit the mundanity that can be office life. Throw in the wonderful score from Theodore Shapiro, and you’ve got yourself a series that’s a technical marvel as much as it is a piece of storytelling brilliance.
In the end, Severance is a masterful stroke of genius from the mind of Dan Erickson – a spectacular piece of high-concept sci-fi that’ll undoubtedly have you hooked. With its debut season, it has cemented itself as one of my favourite shows, with the incoming second season already sky-high on my list of anticipated shows. This is a work of art on so many levels, beginning with a compelling concept and following up with a mesmerising narrative. Unravelling this multi-layered mystery had me on the edge of my seat, with each passing episode scaling up the tension and chills en route to a brilliant climax. If there’s one series that should be at the top of your watch list, it’s Severance.