The Feast of Severance: An interview with Dan Erickson

There’s a feeling I’ve had just a handful of times over the last, oh, two decades of watching television. A feeling that you’re watching something that’s really and truly doing something different: it’s accessing a different tone, taking formal and narrative risks, and each episode somehow feels like a revelation and an invitation. I didn’t watch Lost when it came out, but I know it made people feel that way. Others felt that way watching Twin Peaks, or Enlightened, or Atlanta, or The Leftovers. For me, it’s been Deadwood, then Mad Men, and then, most recently, Watchmen.

Now, the show that does that for me is Severance. A brief plot summary, for the uninitiated: Severance is the story of a company, Lumon, whose workers agree to actually sever their “work self” from their non-work-self. They arrive at work, go down an elevator, and become their Work Self, with no memories or knowledge of what they do outside of work. When they leave at the end of the day, they go up the elevator, and return to their non-work lives, with no memories of what they did at work.

Some people, like Mark, played by Adam Scott, choose to be severed because of a great tragedy in their lives; others seemingly just like the premise. The resulting world within Lumon is like Office Space through a fun house mirror, but even more clever and weird. Severance’s overarching questions: Can you actually separate work from life? Why would you want to? Why would a company want you to? And what are the consequences?

I’ve been watching (and mostly enjoying) the crop of scammer shows (The Dropout, Inventing Anna, WeCrashed) released over the last few months, all of which are in conversation with the past, with each other, with us as viewers, but also with this larger idea of what it takes to succeed in a post-Great Recession, rapid growth capitalism economy. They’re telling what strikes me as deeply Xennial/Millennial-inflected takes on hustle culture, COOL JOBS, and what venture capital demands of its subjects.

Watching these shows, there’s a sense of someone whispering look what you made me do. They can’t decide whether their heroes are deluded assholes or low-key aspirational #goals. In some narratives, that sort of ambivalence is compelling; in these shows, it mostly feels hazy, like the ethical compass of the show itself is spinning wildly, demagnetized in some way by the haze of the narrative norms of the biopic. I mean, these shows are fine. But apart from The Dropout’s precise evocation of mid-2000s fashion, they’re also unmemorable.

Where the scammer shows are muddled, Severance is sharp and bracing. Where they hesitate, Severance lunges, often in the most unexpected of ways. Severance is grappling with many of the same questions swirling around contemporary work and labor as those other shows, but it’s pursuing them in a way that’s at once thrilling and haunting. Every episode feels like a feast that sits in the pit of your stomach and quietly tortures you for the next week. If it’s not clear, I fucking love it.

Last week, I spoke with head writer and show creator Dan Erickson about the disembodied legs that got cut from the script, how he channels his Ricken voice, and, most importantly, what musical style he’d choose for his Lumon Dance Party. There are no spoilers for anyone who hasn’t caught up — and if you’re on the fence about AppleTV, I’ll just say that it also just released Pachinko, so no better time for a subscription than the present.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you tell me about the play you wrote at Western [Washington University] that was a sort of pre-Severance? 

So that play was called Convention and I wrote that…it would’ve been 2005 or 2006. Western has a great sort of incubator for student theater specifically and student generated theater. I was about to graduate, and I had no idea what I was doing — so Convention was a story about it’s these four guys who are in an office and they’re working there and one day they come to realize that they don’t remember ever having arrived or left, and just, it’s this question of wait, who are we? What is this? What are we doing? So obviously bears some similarity to Severance, but it wasn’t the same sort of… It was a much more kind of muddy, existential, maybe supernatural thing happening, as opposed to this specific sci-fi idea.

So a lot of my work is on the history of work and productivity culture and the scourge of all of that, and when I watch the show, I see a lot of Organization Man, Revolutionary Road, Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, that post-World War II understanding of, like, “I’m going to solve my life by going to the office and having this great job that encompasses my life and the company is my family.” But then getting into that life and then being like, “What am I? Who am I? What is my family?” 

For me, I think about how, when I actually wrote the pilot, I was working this string of mostly temp corporate office jobs. There was a lot of sort of entering data that I didn’t fully understand what it was, or that thing where you’re doing something mysterious and important, but it’s need to know and you don’t need to know. And then there were also things, just the corporate culture and this weird, sometimes aggressively familial vibe that you get where it’s just like, “Well no. We’re a family here, and we take care of each other and we love each other.”

And I was seeing somebody for a while who was working at Starbucks, and she was telling me kind of this almost borderline cult of personality culture that they work in, where it’s like, “We’re going to save the world. We’re going to, this company is going to fix everything,” so it’s all stuff I just kind of picked up on over that time and stuff that I found especially funny or scary or just strange.

And then the aesthetic of it was very, I mean, I had always had this kind of retro futurist vibe in my head where it’s a little bit Brazil, very Terry Gilliam, or Dark City, or any of these other movies that sort of collage different time periods. But then that got way more specific. I mean, Ben our DP, Jessica [Lee Gagné] and Jeremy [Hindle] who designed the sets and sort of the overall look — so much of the conversation was about and referencing older movies like [Jacques Tati’s] Playtime.

I follow a bunch of design historians on Twitter and the way that they have pinpointed all of these various references, like “Oh, the uniforms,” which there isn’t a uniform per se, but the wardrobe is close to old school IBM. It’s shot at one of the classic mid-century offices, right?

The interiors were all on a soundstage, but the the exterior of Lumon is the Bell Works building in Holmdel, New Jersey (formerly the Bell Telephone Labs]. Even just that building inspired so much of what else we did. [AHP note: You can read a lot more about the design here and here]

Last night I was DMing with my friend Lila Byock, who was a writer for Watchmen and is a big fan of your show, and she pointed out that all of her recent conversations with networks execs have been along the lines of, “We want something like Ted Lasso that has heart……and we want something like Squid Game that’s a capitalist critique.” And that somehow, Severance manages to do both of those things. It really has a beating heart to it, in a way. How do you think of the show in terms of genre?

I’m really glad to hear you say that about the beating heart, because I actually think that’s the most important element of the whole show. It’s our secret weapon in a way, that we manage to capture these characters who feel they’re heightened versions [of real people], but there is a real organic humanity to each of them. Maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, but I think the show is kind. I think it has empathy for its human characters, and it’s not really a cynical show, even though there are a lot of cynical elements to it. It’s ultimately about surviving the madness — and how do you do that? The answer is that it’s generally the people around you.

But yeah, it’s funny and strange to be making a show that is…I guess the term you’d use is speculative fiction? It’s very this is like our world, but with one thing tweaked. And this one different element that could theoretically exist. But I would say that we wrote it more as a thriller, if anything. There’s propulsive mystery plot elements that are all over every episode.

The pacing is so fascinating — it takes its sweet time in a way that’s really gripping. And then accelerates like hell. I just watched [Episode 8] last night. I was like, “Holy shit!” 

I wanted there to be a, definitely a slow burn, and room for the characters to breathe. But also, when Ben [Stiller] and I first started talking about the show, the original version of the script was much more Brazil. It was much more heightened and strange, and at one point in the script I remember there was a pair of disembodied legs that runs by in the background and their characters are all like, “What the hell was that?”

If you can believe it, we took down the weirdness of the show. Ben fell in love with the part of the show that was this weird human sadness of a person who would willingly do this to himself. Like what would make you want to experience less time on Earth? How bad would things have become? And that question was propulsive for us, but we also wanted to make sure that we’re really spending enough time with this question, that we’re really honoring it.

Well, and I think if you had the disembodied legs, it would be just enough of a turn away from the current moment that the critique would feel looser. But also, you said that you took out some of the weirder stuff — but some of it is sublimated into the design and the culture of Lumon, too. When we were researching Out of Office, we found all these songs for various old school 20th century companies with the same sort of found veneration as the Kier Song. Like, “The Ford Enterprise is Our Mother and Our Father and Our Caregiver,” that sort of thing. 

My friend sent me what I think is the GE pep song from the 1950s, and it’s all there. The other thing I cite as a reference is an internal video that Sizzler would send around to different branches to get employees excited. It’s about six minutes long, and very much in the Reagan-era “Sizzler is Freedom.” It is so funny and so scary.  [AHP note: I strongly suggest clicking on that video]

Culture Study readers are obsessed with the show, and we have a Discord channel where we talk about it in great detail, and one of their questions was that the show is very clearly obsessed with various texts —there’s Ricken’s book, and the book that Apple just put out a “tell-all” from inside Lumon that’s a sort of paratext, and there are so many fan theories about what’s happening, and comparisons to Lost….are you scared, I guess, of disappointing fans or sticking the landing?

First off, I will say, writing Ricken’s book is probably the most fun part of my whole job. I love sitting down and writing it. It’s like stream of consciousness because he doesn’t think through his words, so why should I? And since Michael Chernus was cast, it’s become even easier for me to write Ricken’s book, because I just sit at my desk and do a little Michael impression.

I am blown away by the level of engagement and enthusiasm that people have — that people are legitimately going through this stuff. I hoped against hope that it would be like that — there is a ton of storytelling that is done for the Reddit viewer on this show. We know we’re in this streaming world, where people can pause something and zoom in, so we’re trying to take advantage of that and create a show that you can watch at face value, and it’s fine. It makes sense. But there’s so much more rich detail if you’re willing to sort of dig a little bit and engage with it. My joke on set was that I’d come in with ten pages of text, because you never know if Adam’s going to want to flip through a couple of pages or just focus on one page, but I always had enough, just in case, and we would always joke: well, that’s for the Redditors.

And whether or not we take what is being said on Reddit or anywhere into account, it’s part of the conversation now and it’s part of how people are experiencing the show. And I worry, amongst other things, that people are going to have better ideas than what I have, or they’ll catch where I’m going and think it’s stale within two weeks. But that’s the challenge and the joy making a show in this kind of universe.

Earlier, you gestured toward the fact that in your temp jobs, you were inputting numbers and you didn’t know where they were going — that you were essentially alienated from what you producing. And the show addresses that, but we often consume in an alienated way as well.

Once you start looking for disassociation, it’s everywhere. It’s in the way we consume media, and how so much of what we consume is so targeted now, and you have to work hard to get another perspective, and we all spend time buying products that we know are not necessarily coming from an ethical place or arriving through an ethical process. But there’s a sense of well, I’m just going to push that knowledge away — we only look at the things we want to look at, because we want the world to look a certain way, and we’re comfortable with a certain picture of the world, and without even realizing it, we put up these blinders to everything else. And I’m not sure how beat-by-beat we will explore all of those things over the course of the show, but that is the goal: to open up the world, and with each step, look at a different facet of our behavior, and how the world is shifting towards a much more segmented version of itself.

I’ve heard that the filming itself was pretty unique in terms of a lot of isolation, shooting a lot at night, Covid precautions, just…a dark place. [Pre-production was shut down for Covid, then restarted on the day after the 2020 Presidential Election; the first scenes of the show were shot on January 6th, 2021].

It’s a very pandemic show to me, but I also don’t know know that I could’ve watched it two years ago, if that makes sense. For Season Two, how can you create some of those conditions while also not being as miserable?

I don’t know if we can. First of all, the way that the context of the show changed during the pandemic was fascinating. I panicked at first, because even when I realized we were coming back [to production] and we were still going to do the show, I was like, “Okay, but a lot of workplaces are shifting to at home or partially at home. Are we making an office show right after offices went extinct? Are we making the most comically ill-timed and irrelevant piece of art ever made?”

But then — and I saw this reflected on our set and with our crew — it actually just reframed the context. People still feel alienated at work. But now it’s when there’s such a weird isolation and loneliness on the outside, it affects what you want from your coworkers and in some cases what you need. You need a little more warmth and humanity. I think in a weird, perverse way, we lucked into [this moment]. We were asking these questions that I think would’ve been relevant before, but became more relevant.

But the last thing I’ll say is it was a ridiculously hard shoot. And I’m the guy who got to waltz in three hours after other people had to show up to begin setting up. And I got to see something that I know had been bubbling a long time in the entertainment industry, and the IATSE [negotiations] that took place a few months ago, and just this overall question of what is an acceptable level of work and time to ask of people, versus at what point are we, as an industry, sort of tacitly taking advantage of people and their desire to be here and do this work?

So for me, the fact that we are emerging into this world, with people starting to re-question what it means to work, and what we should and shouldn’t give away of ourselves — that was all happening on our set, and informing how I thought about the show.

My last question: If you had your own office party, where you got to pick one of those musical styles, which one are you?

I mean, I’m certainly curious about hootin’ tootin’ country just because of the… I mean, what causes something to hoot or toot? I don’t even know, and I think that’s one of the big philosophical questions the show raises. What is the difference between hootin’ and tootin’, and why is it not rootin’ tootin’, which I think is the more common phrase? So I’m not a big country music fan, but I think out of curiosity, I go rootin’ tootin’ country.

You can follow Dan Erickson on Instagram — and see some exclusive BEHIND THE SCENES shots of filming the now infamous waffle party — here.

Special thanks to Dan’s brother Matt, my friend of 20 years, who first told me to start looking out for the show last Fall, and, most importantly, helped me verify the correct Sizzler video.