‘Severance’ Is Peaking at Just the Right Time — After Flipping the Script on CEO Dramas

By focusing on workers instead of their eccentric overlords, the Apple series scratches an itch too often ignored by forgettable, founder-driven biopics.

In the sixth episode of Hulu’s “The Dropout,” new hire Erika Cheung (Cameron Mi-young Kim) is working at Theranos labs, alone, on Thanksgiving Day. It’s the kind of thankless shift commonly thrust upon young employees, eager to prove themselves, and Erika takes her job seriously; seriously enough that when a machine fails a quality control check — thus invalidating the test results it’s supposed to provide — she calls the emergency line, hoping to start the repair process as soon as possible, so as not to delay the patient’s blood-work.

Instead, Erika is told someone is coming to see her — apparently she’s not the only one on the clock, though that unnerving realization is soon compounded by who shows up to help: A senior lab tech? A repair specialist? No, it’s the same R&D manager she just spoke to on the phone, and she’s not there to fix the machine. She simply overrides the error report and forwards the faulty analysis anyway. As she commits an obvious ethical violation, Erika tries to stop her. “Wait, no — this is a real patient,” she says. “This is a real person.” “Happy Thanksgiving,” the unnamed visitor replies, as she walks out of the room.

Watching this scene, hearing those words, I can’t tell you how… happy it made me. No, I’m not a monster who roots for a company’s success over the well-being of its clients. But after a slew of recent TV series that prioritize the CEO’s perspective — often to such an extent that you’re asked to savor their victories along with them — it’s such a relief to see a biopic that’s consistently concerned with the hell these egomaniacs can unleash. By investing in people like Erika, who need their job and want to do it well, “The Dropout” strikes a major chord missing from “WeCrashed,” “Super Pumped,” and even the wishful CEO in “Inventing Anna.” Elizabeth Meriwether’s limited series emphasizes the destructive force of greed in the start-up age by showing how the eccentricities of “visionary” CEOs’ mask an utter disregard for actual employees.

… but “The Dropout” is still about Elizabeth Holmes. Viewers still have to spend time with a lying, scheming, leader in business as she gains incredible wealth and prominence. Any veneration is actively checked, and her downfall is always imminent, but it may be too late in 2022 to hear, “No, this founder drama gets it right.” Perhaps you need a little space from founders. Perhaps you need more intrigue than the repulsive rise of an “innovator” and their financially cushioned fall. Perhaps you need to unreservedly root for the rebel forces rather than reconsider if the Evil Empire is really that evil.

Perhaps you need to be watching “Severance.”

Whether you’re already aware of Apple’s buzzy new drama or are just now hearing about it, Dan Erickson’s freshman series works as an antidote not only to the spate of dry CEO dramas, but to the aimless nature of too many bloated streaming series. “Severance” is propulsive and pointed; a thriller that wears its convictions on its well-tailored sleeves — including a compassionate embrace of everyday employees and a layered condemnation of corporate overreach. And as it flies toward Friday’s Season 1 finale, the working class heroes are preparing for battle against a corporation founded by a single, mysterious CEO.

Season 1 follows Mark Scout (Adam Scott), a widower working in a small department at mega-corporation Lumon Industries. Because his office deals with sensitive materials, Mark undergoes a procedure known as severance. A chip is inserted into his brain, creating an actual division between work and life. When Mark’s off the clock, he can’t remember anything about his job or his time there. When he’s on the clock, he can’t remember anything about his personal history. The procedure essentially creates two separate people — for the good of the company, if not its employees.

Clearly, “Severance” isn’t a true story. It’s not adapted from an exposé or documentary (nor is it based on Ling Ma’s 2018 book, which caused a bit of confusion early on). But its eerie ability to capture what it feels like to work for a living reflects many people’s daily reality with a powerful resonance. Why? Despite Lumon’s deification of its secretive founder, Kier Eagan, “Severance” doesn’t tell his story. Its position is firmly rooted in these 9-to-5 staffers. (Well, 9-to-5:15 or so. Each exit has to be staggered so employees can’t identify their colleagues as they leave.)

Viewed from its most neutral position, the series acknowledges how difficult it can be to balance your work life with personal life. But it’s also a passionate endorsement of unionizing and a savage critique of capitalism — topics and conversations that feel all the more relevant during the Great Resignation.

Given “Severance’s” mid-February debut, weekly viewers likely noticed similarities between the fictional series and the tepid dirge of biopics that followed. Take their approach to incentives. Perks are a big part of creating an attractive, appeasing work culture. Businesses like Uber and WeWork were (in)famous for pushing incentives to extremes. The second episode of “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” recaps a company retreat in which employees are flown to Vegas, supplied with ample booze (and drugs), and entertained by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. The rowdy group is given enough leeway for a good time that they rack up a $25 million bill — which CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is happy to pay.

At the WeWork depicted in “WeCrashed,” company headquarters could be taken over by impromptu dance parties. The start of each week was dedicated to Thank God It’s Monday celebrations. Shots and beer were plentiful well before the first WeWork Summer Camp, which — as depicted in Episode 3 — included silent disco dance parties, concerts, and enough alcohol to keep a college campus drunk for days. Apple’s series on Adam and Rebekah Neumann (portrayed by Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway, respectively) doesn’t go soft on the damage created by this event; the episode is framed by a new-hire who struggles to keep her head above water amid an endless cycle of WeWork “perks,” and it ends with another staffer getting fired for failing to protect Rebekah from the chaos she created.

But “WeCrashed” can’t stick with its own critique, and “Super Pumped” is too obsessed with the bottom line. Each show gives a knowing glance at the corrosive amenities associated with start-up culture, while still savoring the entertainment value in each gleaming drop of acid. Meanwhile, “Severance” calls out the duplicitous purpose and actual value of perks right from the jump. Lumon Industries isn’t a start-up; it’s a century-old corporation, so its incentives are far less luxurious, but just as empty. As Dylan (Zach Cherry) brags about the Lumon-branded erasers and finger-traps he’s accrued for years of diligent work, his elder colleague Irving (John Turturro) remembers when they didn’t need “children’s” toys to finish their work on time. “This place is so out of hand,” Irving says. “When you processed a file in the old days, they’d shake our hand and fill up the creamer.” Dylan quips back, “I still don’t buy they actually incentivized creamer.”

Further perks are revealed as “Severance” continues; there are caricature portraits, sliced melon buffets, even a “five-minute music dance experience.” (The top prize is a “waffle party,” though I promise not even the most visionary tech founder could predict everything that entails.) These incentives may seem silly, and that’s because they are; they’re gifts of low or no cost to the company that encourage the employees to do their jobs well. In other words, they’re ways to maximize value from the workforce without giving the workers anything of value in return — like a raise.

The insightful censures of corporate culture don’t stop there. Since Irving is somewhat immune to the concept of working for perks, “Severance” examines his belief in the company as a force for good. Irving has memorized the employee handbook as well as various written passages from Lumon’s founder, Kier Eagan. He beams when the department visits the Perpetuity Wing, a peculiar museum, only for employees, that’s tucked away within the bowels of Lumon HQ. There are wax statues of each CEO complete with recorded speeches for employees, past and present. Irving beams up at each figure, often completing their sentences along with them. Clearly, he doesn’t need any further incentives; he works hard because he’s fully bought in to Lumon’s philosophy.

Irving’s dedication calls to mind the applause that welcome Travis back to Uber’s offices, the cheers that punctuate Adam’s speeches at WeWork, and the adoring fans surrounding Elizabeth Holmes as one of the few prominent female CEOs. Like these real-life figures, “Severance” creates a founder so mysterious he’s mythical — there’s no telling what his motivations are, because there’s no telling what they’re even doing at work. Irving sorts numbers on a computer screen into electronic bins. No one knows what they mean, or why they’re doing it. Still, Irving believes Kier is good. He sees the museum’s “wall of smiles” as proof their work is helping people, remembering when he first saw it, “I learned I worked for a company that’s been actively caring for people since 1866.” Yet, as Irving is exposed to more company secrets, his faith is tested, shaken, and cracked.

In this light, “Severance” aligns with the catch-all purpose of these start-up stories:  It’s a cautionary tale. “WeCrashed,” “Super Pumped,” and “The Dropout” all warn against what happens when people idolize self-proclaimed “innovators” over industry standards and common sense. Holmes rebutted FDA regulators and modeled her health service like a tech start-up, just like Neumann twisted his real estate venture into a tech start-up for the higher valuation. The grifts were good, for a while, but even failed grifts make for good entertainment.

Netflix’s “Inventing Anna” serves as yet another example, since Anna Delvey, né Sorokin — a human start-up, to borrow an excellent descriptor —  demands to be seen as a member of Manhattan’s elite if her con is going to succeed. Like the other founder biopics (or, in Anna’s case, a wannabe founder), the fictionalized tale of the fake German heiress brought to prominence by New York magazine is entertaining, sure. But it falls prey to the same starry-eyed obsession with its subject the others do. Combined with the empathy evoked from hearing Anna’s side for most of the story, all that idol worship ends up overshadowing everyone she screws over. Who the victims are and why becomes muddled in the nine egregiously long episodes, and Anna, along with her so-rich-as-to-be-untouchable friends, are often counted among them.

“Severance” never loses track of its predators and prey, thanks mainly to Helly (Brit Lower). A new hire on Lumon’s severed floor, Helly doesn’t take kindly to her life sentence as a number-crunching worker bee. She tries to leave, only to discover she can’t remember leaving, so it feels like she never left at all. Then she tries to quit, but her “request” is denied. Eventually, she resorts to more drastic measures, setting off a series of events that outline just how unhappy she is and just how little her employer cares. When Irving tries to share his faith in Lumon as motivation to stick around, Helly’s response is akin to what you or I might do if told to trust in the almighty Xenu.

The founders of WeWork, Uber, and even Theranos are worshiped like gods, too, but like gods, they command absolute attention. And giving them that much attention, without an alternative framework, can turn viewers into parishioners. It’s as if we’re walking through Lumon’s Perpetuity Wing, staring up at wax figures of famous founders like Adam Neumann, Travis Kalanick, and Anna Delvey. We’re meant to study their inscrutable proclamations and absorb their life stories — sometimes learning from their success, sometimes learning from their failures, without being told how to distinguish between the two.

But in reality, most of us are never going to be founders or CEOs. We’re going to be too busy working for them. So rather than repeatedly gawk at their rise and fall, we should learn how to protect ourselves from their dehumanizing decisions. “Severance” is a constant reminder to do just that.

“Severance” is available to stream via Apple TV+. The Season 1 finale premieres Friday, April 8.