Toxic corporate culture is at the heart of Ben Stiller's workplace dystopia TV series 'Severance'
There’s a new show on Apple TV, the plot and context of which is ironic given Apple workers are currently using Android phones through union organizing campaigns because of the company’s record on retaliation, surveillance, and union busting.
The series follows Mark, played by Adam Scott, an employee at a Lumon Industries, a fictitious, powerful corporation that operates a dystopian workplace model; workers’ memories are essentially hijacked by the company, severing their memories of work from that of their outside lives, and vice versa. The effect takes place as soon as the worker takes an elevator ride down to a windowless maze of cubicle offices.
Five episodes have been released so far and it takes a little bit for the show to get going. But its a searing indictment of corporate culture and a psychological thriller take on the comedy film Office Space in terms of exploring the dehumanization of America’s white collar landscape.
Mark has worked at Lumon Industries for two years in a department with three other severed workers, all of whom have a very limited understanding of the work they do, its purpose, and how it ties into the rest of the company.
Mark lost his wife in a car accident and embraced the ‘severance’ of work-life balance as a form of escapism from his grief.
The workers are deliberately isolated from coworkers in other departments at the behest of management, which has started to come to a head as Irving, played by John Turturro, has befriended a worker in a different department, Burt, played by Christopher Walken, and a supervisor attempts to undermine their friendship through inducing fear with the planting of a painting depicting Burt’s department attacking and cannibalizing Irving’s department. This supervisory tactic, albeit an extreme version of one commonly used by corporate management, deters any sort of organizing/relationship development that could potentially undermine management’s control over workers as the underlying message is the corporation and chain of workplace command are infallible.
Management over Mark and his departments compromises of a a direct manager, supervisor, a corporate wellness counselor, and a head of security, while a corporate board oversees them in silence, with a company representative acting as a liaison between corporate executives and management overseeing the severed departments.
“The board is joining us” the liaison tells the office manager, played by Patricia Arquette, in one episode. The board does not speak, merely listens through an intercom box and relays any messages through the liaison, including emphasizing hitting projected quotas by the next quarterly deadline.
Management’s surveillance and control over Mark, unknowingly to Mark, extends beyond the workplace; his unsevered manager masquerades as a neighbor outside of work and Mark’s supervisor steals a package left for Mark outside townhome door, a copy of a self-published self-help book by Mark’s brother-in-law, Ricken, which Mark’s work-self discovers left in a conference room and secretly reads while at work, slowly building on the tension for the audience that Mark is increasingly becoming aware of the exploitation he and his coworkers are experiencing as employees of Lumon Industries.
Mark’s managers emphasize compliance and conformity as precursors to ensuring productivity (the only bookshelf in the office room of Mark’s department are a stack of leather bound books, all part of a volume series on Compliance).
Though sometimes subtle, the dystopian aspects of the show work because of how familiar and rampant the corporate sentiments and approaches are throughout capitalism, from a supervisor instructing Mark on how to display “kind eyes” in getting a newly severed coworker who just attempted suicide back to work, to the comedic glee in which Irving, John Turturro’s character, recites passages from the corporate handbook, ‘the handbook forbids taking heart to other employees,’ or directly quoting the founder of the company. Simulataneously, Turturro’s character is haunted by the workplace, succumbing to lucid visions of a black slime dripping off the ceiling onto his cubicle.
The brainwashing, control, surveillance, dehumanization, exploitation, intimidation, threats, and discipline throughout Lumon Industries is indicative of a toxic corporate culture where these tactics are praised as pioneering, especially most recently in tech, whether from corporations like WeWork or Theranos that imploded on the amount of propaganda the executives sold to employees, shareholders, and the public, to the current behemoths in the industry, including Amazon where workers have been pushing for the ability to keep their cellphones on them during workhours in warehouses, where workers are forced to spend thousands of dollars a year on childcare they need to be able to attend work, to health insurance tied to employment, disciplinary and constricting attendance policies, grueling work schedules, aggressive union busting, poverty wages, understaffing, wage theft, verbal and physical abuse from customers, the list goes on and on.
The neuro-technology that Severance is based on may not yet exist, but the workplace culture certainly permeates workplaces throughout the US where accepting indignities, abuse, low wages, dehumanization, and overwork are transmogrified as virtues.