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The mystery in 'Severance' grows more creative and compelling with each episode


Apple TV+'s drama "Severance" asks, what might happen if a corporation discovered how to disconnect employees' memories while they're at work? So basically, they remember nothing from the outside world while they're there. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the result is a moody, weirdly compelling mystery centered on the nature of consciousness and freedom.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "Severance" begins with a young woman named Helly, played by Britt Lower, taking a particularly unusual test. Helly is in an office meeting room alone. Her interrogator talks through a speakerphone.


ADAM SCOTT: (As Mark, over speaker) Who are you?

BRITT LOWER: (As Helly) That's the first question?

SCOTT: (As Mark, over speaker) First name'll do.

LOWER: (As Helly) I don't...

SCOTT: (As Mark, over speaker) If you can't answer the question, feel free to say unknown.

LOWER: (As Helly) What is this?

SCOTT: (As Mark, over speaker) Question two - in which U.S. state or territory were you born?

LOWER: (As Helly) Wait. I don't know.

SCOTT: (As Mark, over speaker) This is the final question. To the best of your memory, what is or was the color of your mother's eyes?

LOWER: (As Helly) What's happening?

DEGGANS: Turns out, Helly has just gone through a process called severance, where work memories are separated from other memories. Inside the office, she has no memory of anything that's happened outside of it. That's proving difficult for her to accept in a conversation with her department head, played by "Parks And Recreation" alum Adam Scott.


LOWER: (As Helly) So I'll never leave here.

SCOTT: (As Mark) You'll leave at 5:00. Well, actually, they stagger exits - so 5:15. But it won't feel like it, not to this version of you anyway.

LOWER: (As Helly) Do I have a family?

SCOTT: (As Mark) You'll never know.

LOWER: (As Helly) I have no choice.

SCOTT: (As Mark) Well, every time you find yourself here, it's because you chose to come back.

DEGGANS: It's a wonderfully trippy scenario that allows "Severance" to ask all kinds of questions. For example, are the severed people actually two different consciousnesses in the same body? If they are, is it ethical for the person outside the office to decide when and if the person inside can ever leave? And what happens if the office drones decide they really want out?

Adam Scott plays Mark, a former history professor who chooses a severance position to help handle crushing grief after the death of his wife. Still, his sister wonders why he stopped seeing a therapist.


JEN TULLOCK: (As Devon) You're not going.

SCOTT: (As Mark) Well, the work thing's helped.

TULLOCK: (As Devon) I'm proud of you for taking that job. I really am. And I think she would have been too. I know she would been. I just feel like forgetting about her for eight hours a day isn't the same thing as healing.

DEGGANS: Comedy star Ben Stiller flexes his dramatic chops as an executive producer and director of more than half of "Severance's" nine episodes. He gives the show a quirky, minimalist feel, especially inside the office of Lumon Corporation (ph), where the halls are blindingly white and gray and stretch on endlessly. There are also great supporting performances here, including Patricia Arquette chewing scenery as a bizarrely controlling top administrator who can't stand Mark.


SCOTT: (As Mark) Are you mad at me?

PATRICIA ARQUETTE: (As Peggy) You know, my mother - she used to say that there was good news and bad news about hell. The good news is hell is just the product of a morbid human imagination. The bad news is whatever humans can imagine, they can usually create.

DEGGANS: Stiller skewers corporate culture and earnest liberal culture in equal measure. Still, there's a few unanswered questions, like, how do they know English and how to work computers in an office with no outside memories? But as the office drones look further into what the corporation is doing and why they are there, they stumble into a mystery which only grows more creative and compelling with each episode.

I'm Eric Deggans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.