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Writing for TV: Severance Pilot

Only a handful of shows manage to resonate so profoundly with our current reality while navigating intricate storylines, and those that do tend to leave a lasting impression. Enter Severance, a show that debuted in 2022 and serves as a poignant reflection of our contemporary struggles, particularly in work-life balance and our intricate relationship with our careers.

Severance is a psychological thriller series interwoven with elements of science fiction. It was conceived by the creative talents of Dan Erickson and brought to life under the direction of Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle. The series boasts a formidable ensemble cast featuring acclaimed actors, including Adam Scott, Zach Cherry, Britt Lower, Tramell Tillman, Jen Tullock, Dichen Lachman, Michael Chernus, John Turturro, Christopher Walken, and Patricia Arquette.

At its core, Severance follows the journey of Mark S. (played by Adam Scott), an employee of the fictional Lumon Industries. Mark willingly enrolls in a distinctive "severance" program, a process that severs his non-work memories from those related to his job. This unique premise sets the stage for a gripping exploration of identity and the human psyche.

Still from 'Severance'. Photo credit: GQ

Freedom and Work

Mark Scout willingly submits to the fictional "severance procedure" to secure employment with Lumon Industries. During his work hours, Mark's memories are entirely disconnected from his consciousness.

He and his team of "data refiners" are constantly monitored and confined within the basement of the facility until they conclude their workday. Upon exiting Lumon, their memories are reinstated, but they do not recollect their tasks and activities while at work.

The show's opening line poses the question, "Who are you?" The series delves into themes of identity and purpose, interwoven with the exciting escapades of the imprisoned "innies." Mark, on the outside, referred to as an "outie," finds himself consumed by the troubles of his personal life, which, regrettably, are laden with tragedy.

Conversely, Innie Mark's existence is entirely centered on his job. Neither of these men experiences contentment or a sense of fulfillment. The series underscores that achieving a sense of purpose through diligent effort is crucial to a satisfying life, not merely the momentary relief that comes with relaxation once the day's work is completed.

From its pilot, Severance beautifully interweaves the misery of non-fulfilled work while making it dense enough not to have a straightforward interpretation. The show skillfully intertwines the dystopian Lumon office's totalitarian nightmare with a semblance of a contemporary, real-world society.

Outie Mark's indifference toward the political concept of severance is both unsettling and believable. The series offers a suspenseful cinematic journey populated by well-crafted, relatable characters, which we’ll discuss more now.

Relatable Characters

While many love characters for their ability to distract the mind from the realities we’re dealing with, I’ll always argue the more relatable a character is, the better. As dystopian or dark as Severance is at times, the show maintains a believable setting, even if it’s something that’s not possible at the moment.

Creating relatable, three-dimensional characters in your story allows readers to connect with and support them. Humanizing your characters adds depth and complexity to your narrative. In reality, severance understands that anchoring your characters aids audiences in suspending their disbelief and immersing themselves in the story's world.

To ensure character success, it's essential to let them take action early in the plot, whether in the story's introduction or during the rising action. This action doesn't necessarily involve saving the day or defeating a villain; it can be as simple as standing up for themselves or opposing injustice.

Another way to make your characters relatable is by showcasing their passions in life. Severance contrasts the innie and outie marks, highlighting the juxtaposition of the “two” characters. You can encompass their hobbies, interests, or their chosen profession.

In any work of fiction, the protagonist is the central figure around whom the story revolves. Consequently, the protagonist must be a fully developed character with distinct personality traits. Audiences must empathize with the protagonist to become wholly engrossed in the story.

Larger Themes and Success

Severance stands out as a remarkable show that would excel in any era of television. It possesses a captivating premise, an instantly recognizable visual style, a talented cast of well-known and emerging actors delivering exceptional performances, and a dark sense of humor that adds levity without compromising its overall atmosphere.

One of Severance's notable accomplishments is its ability to transform mundane elements like windowless offices, corporate furniture, break rooms, fluorescent lighting, staircases, elevators, and office settings into something that evolves from the ordinary to the eerie and awe-inspiring.

The show masterfully captures the banality of corporate life at Lumon, where employees are enticed with ludicrous corporate "perks" like finger traps and waffle parties, all while toiling away in excessively vacant spaces.

These workers report to middle managers who seem detached from their humanity, even when urging others to exhibit "kind eyes." Although the team's work is deemed mysterious and essential, it appears monotonous.


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