Severance & The Return Of Office Working

Severance Tv Show

As lockdown recedes around the world and people are once again able to go into their offices many are resistant, believing that it has been demonstrated that working from home is an equally viable option. The office is not always a happy and joyous place and has been a common setting for many TV shows and films, with surprise critic hit Severance being the latest.

Severance is a sci-fi/horror dystopia tv show on Apple TV+ starring Adam Scott, best known as everyone’s favourite nerd and Cones of Dunshire creator Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation. Created by Dan Erickson with Ben Stiller directing six of the nine episodes, Severance is about an office where the employees go through “severance” they are psychologically split into two people, one who exists solely in the office and one who exists everywhere else. Neither remembers or knows anything about their other self, apart from that they do exist. The office people have skills, personalities and desires but no memories, essentially all they do is work. The office is shaken up by the departure of one staff member, Petey, and the arrival of another, Helly. Mark, played by Scott, is promoted to office manager and deals with the orientation of the newcomer. Helly instantly hates what is happening, considering it akin to slavery and tries desperately to quit, even though quitting would lead to her “death”. The outside self of all these employees volunteered for this and want their office selves to carry on working.

The show is incredibly creepy. Not just the premise but the office itself, stark white walls, a maze of corridors, the on the surface nice Milchick but is simply part of management’s control over the employees and “the break room” where disruptive employees are sent and come back shaken.

Severance is not the only show to deal with the horror of life in an office. Movies like The Matrix and Fight Club have their protagonists stuck in boring cubicle-bound jobs which leads to one becoming a prophesied superpowered saviour and the other a dangerous gang leader with multiple personalities.

“Uh Oh, Sounds Like Somebody’s Got A Case Of The Mondays!”

Office Space
The infamous photocopier revenge scene // Credit: Office Space, 20th Century Fox

Cult-classic Office Space has no actual horror or dystopia about it and is a comedy about a workplace but it may well bring on an existential crisis about the sheer pointlessness and frustration of working in a cubicle. It contains what might be the bleakest line ever uttered in cinema, “so, that means every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.” Peter (Ron Livingston) is hypnotised by a therapist into letting go of his worries for a few minutes but when the hypnotist has a heart attack mid-session the feeling sticks and Peter no longer has any worries and goes into his office job, which he hates, and does whatever he wants. He abandons the dress code, sleeps in and destroys a wall of his cubicle to give himself space and when efficiency experts are brought in to lay people off they are impressed by him simply telling it like it is – why should he work hard? Why shouldn’t he do the bare minimum? And they have no answer for him.

“Low Overhead, My Boy – We Pass The Savings On To You!”

 Being John Malkovich
The low ceilings in Being John Malkovich // Credit: Universal Pictures

Being John Malkovich paints a far weirder picture of the office. Out-of-work puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) takes a job as a filing clerk in a bizarre office located on the seventh and a half floor of a skyscraper with ceilings so low everyone is permanently in a crouch. The office is full of odd people – the secretary who claims everyone is unintelligible because of fictional speech impediments, the owner of the company Dr Lester who wants to have in-depth conversations about sex and relentlessly drinks carrot juice and the icily cool Maxine, who Craig immediately falls in love with. Things get odder as Craig literally finds a door that takes him inside the mind of actor John Malkovich, he can see through Malkovich’s eyes, hear what he hears, and after about 15 minutes is ejected into New Jersey. What follows is a surreal battle for control of the door and over Malkovich.

“Most Guys I Know Who Are In Mergers and Acquisitions Really Don’t Like It.”

American Psycho
Patrick Bateman hard at work // Credit: American Psycho, Lions Gate Film

American Psycho asks the viewer to decide what is scarier: a sociopathic serial killer coworker or the blandest of bland offices, where people confuse colleagues because they have a similar haircut and discuss business cards as if they’re going through the complicated feelings of hatred, jealousy, and awe felt by Salieri to Mozart in Amadeus. The workplace, Pierce & Pierce, does “Mergers & Acquisitions” and as nebulous as that description is even more nebulous is what anyone does there. The serial killer, Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), is indeed the scarier option if only because the office doesn’t make you listen to Phil Collins while it destroys you.

It is safe to say most offices aren’t as dangerous, weird or sinister as some of the above-mentioned workplaces and the return to the office will be less dramatic.

Also Read: The Ingredients Of A Cult Classic

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Posted by
Richard Norton

Gentleman, podcaster and pop culture nerd, I love talking and writing about pretty much all pop culture.