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‘Severance’ puts a creepy sci-fi spin on the idea of work-life balance

Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

The best kind of science fiction sometimes feels set about 10 minutes in the future, and so it is with “Severance,” an extremely creepy, slow-moving but instantly engrossing Apple TV+ series. Produced by Ben Stiller, the project features a stellar cast, in a show about memory that proves appropriately hard to forget.

The title refers to a procedure practiced by corporate giant Lumon Industries in which employees sever their memories of what transpires at work from what happens outside, and vice versa, theoretically bringing new meaning to the phrase “work-life balance.”

Yet when a member of the team suddenly leaves, and a newcomer arrives, it upsets the chemistry within the office, triggering thoughts about what really might be motivating the practice — and what the company might actually be doing that its robotic, happy-talking top brass appear eager to avoid.

Answers don’t come quickly, but the scenario becomes utterly fascinating, with Adam Scott as Mark Scout, the low-key new leader of the team; and Britt Lower as Helly, the new arrival who asks way too many questions.

All told, it’s enough to make even those pining for the office appreciate Zoom calls. As for the aforementioned cast, Lumon’s personnel roster includes John Turturro, Christopher Walken, Zach Cherry, Tramell Tillman and Patricia Arquette, the last reuniting with Stiller after the splendid 2018 prison drama “Escape at Dannemora.”

For Mark, the severed memories have served a particular purpose, allowing him to create distance between work and the pain he was experiencing after the loss of his wife.

Scott turns out to be the perfect Everyman, but the cast is uniformly good. Why the others would agree to this Faustian bargain is only one of the breadcrumbs that “Severance” takes its time sprinkling, in a series that leaves plenty of runway for more at the end of its nine episodes.

Created by Dan Erickson, there’s a “Twin Peaks”-esque quality to some of the quirkier aspects of the series, such as Arquette’s monotone-voiced boss informing Mark that “A handshake is available upon request,” the walks down impossibly long hallways or the odd obsession with melon balls at the awkward company celebrations. The show also invites comparisons to the under-appreciated AMC drama “Rubicon” and ahead-of-its-time 1960s series “The Prisoner,” given the confined setting and uncertainty about who can be trusted.

“Severance” won’t be for everyone, but those drawn into its antiseptic, maze-like workspace won’t be able to get enough of its provocative implications about messing around with the brain and memories, a la the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

Light escapism it isn’t. But until the show’s fictional technology becomes reality, a series like “Severance” is just the sort of cerebral concept to help take one’s mind off the daily grind of working 9 to 5.

“Severance” premieres Feb. 18 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Apple.)

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