CULTURE

What to Watch After You’ve Finished Severance

These five movies and television series perfectly capture the Orwellian environment of corporate hell.


adam scott sitting on a desk with a computer in front of a clock on the wall
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Are we finally ready to admit that Apple TV+ is a power player when it comes to streaming—a worthy adversary of HBO Max, Netflix, Hulu, and the like? I hope so, because it’s not just a platform with very expensive-looking content for dads featuring A-list talent (Ted Lasso, looking at you) or somewhat under-discussed series that seem to have only garnered attention from niche fandoms (Dickinson, Servant, For All Mankind). And after this year’s big Academy Award win for the streamer, it’s never been clearer that Apple is not here to play.

The current series of the moment, which has proven itself to be worthy of awards recognition, is Severance, created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. The series bills itself as an unsettling, dystopian, sometimes darkly comedic take on the concept of “work-life balance” (a topic many white collar workers have become more acutely aware of as the pandemic has given way to a primarily working-from-home lifestyle).

Starring Adam Scott, Britt Lower, Patricia Arquette, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Tramell Tillman, and Zach Cherry, Severance takes place in a near-future version of reality, where workers can elect to undergo a procedure in which they are mentally “severed” into two halves. Their “outie” is the version of themselves that lives on the outside of Lumon, a corporation which has pioneered the controversial severance procedure but doesn’t allow anyone to know what, exactly, it is that the company really produces. Their “innie” is the version of themselves that works on the severance floor of the building. Neither halves are aware of what the other is really like, and when a colleague is mysteriously let go one day, only to later appear outside of work to Mark (Scott)’s “outie,” the mystery of Lumon begins to unravel. (The title is also, in some ways, a double entendre about the severance packages employees may receive after being laid off from a job).

There’s something both futuristic and incredibly retro about the aesthetics of Sevarance. At Lumon, there are the visual and narrative references to the modern workplace and its panopticon-esque open-plan setup—employees can be sent to a “wellness center” not unlike the “ZenBooths” introduced to stressed-out Amazon employees; there’s also a “break room,” which is not at all like the conversation spaces in real-world offices (it’s much worse). And then there are the rewards employees can earn after correctly completing their “macrodata refinement” (moving numbers around on a very ’80s-looking computer screen, the purpose of which is still unknown to viewers at this point in the series): finger traps, office supplies, and of course, the mysterious “Waffle Party.” When the workers leave, and return to the office the next day, it feels as if they never left. In other words, the employees at Lumon are living in corporate hell.

Severance was picked up for a second season just days before its finale aired, which has left some viewers extremely antsy thanks to its incredibly tense cliffhanger. Until the next installment drops, we’ve compiled a few series and films that capture the absurdity of corporate politics and being a good little office worker to tide you over in the meantime.

Clockwatchers

Jill Sprecher’s 1997 film Clockwatchers, based in part on her own experience as a temp officer worker, has become a cult classic. When a new temp (Toni Collette) joins the team at a nondescript office, she’s shown the ropes by her new friends (Parker Posey, Alanna Ubach, Lisa Kudrow). Mainly, they spend their days trying to figure out ways to make themselves look busy, whether that’s jamming the printer or building a rubber band ball. But when office supplies and coworkers’ belongings suddenly start to go missing, the entire office turns on each other to find out who is committing the thefts.

Initially difficult to find online, the film is now available to rent online via Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play. It’ll be available to stream on the Criterion Channel starting July 14.

Office Space

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect comedy when it comes to capturing the absurdity of office politics than Mike Judge’s 1999 film, Office Space. When a cubicle employee (Ron Livingston) decides he just can’t take it anymore, he tries to get himself fired from his hellish corporate job—only for the plan to backfire and give him more work. Office Space is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Perhaps a more melodramatic take on the corporate world, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit still proves that we’ve had these ideas about office drudgery, work-life balance, and our capitalist culture’s attachment to materialism since at least the mid-20th century. Based on Sloan Wilson’s novel of the same name, Nunnally Johnson’s 1956 film adaptation stars Gregory Peck as Tom, a World War II veteran suffering from PTSD, who decides to take a job in PR at a television network to support his wife (Jennifer Jones) and family. He deals with a micromanaging boss, the workaholic head of the network who wants to launch a mental health initiative with Tom, and toxic office politics while trying to stave off his panic attacks at work. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Enlightened

I will take any and every opportunity to tell people to watch Enlightened, no matter their employment status, because it is some of Mike White’s best work about the boiling point so many of us are rapidly approaching as we inch toward burnout—just like Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), an executive at an environmentally shady corporation. After suffering a nervous breakdown, Jellicoe returns to work only to be relegated to the basement, an island of misfit toys who she tries to unite in power to take down the man. You can watch it on HBO Max.

Better Off Ted

In Better Off Ted, a short-lived ABC sitcom, Ted is a corporate shill working in the research and development department of a company that he soon realizes is incredibly unethical. You can stream it on Hulu.