Television Man | Aidan Morgan | April 7, 2022


Spoilers for Buffy, Angel and Severance follow

Way back in the year 2000, in the season three finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, soul-having vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) gave vampire-slaying Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) a mournful look and disappeared into the smoke, bound for his spin-off series. The show promised to be more adult-oriented, with extra doses of blood and moral ambiguity. So what if it also featured a demonic karaoke bar (indisputably the best thing on the show)?

During its five-season run, Angel hopped back and forth between genres: a monster-y neo noir, a “turgid supernatural soap opera,” to quote one of the characters, a general satire of LA life. But I enjoyed the show most when it hit its unexpected sweet spot: the office comedy. Angel’s greatest foe is neither monster nor a demon nor even an individual. It’s an evil law firm with the swanky identikit name of Wolfram and Hart.

I know, right? Evil law firm! They make jokes about people getting sacked “and there were actual sacks”. They resurrect figures from Angel’s past to haunt and torture him, but they also pester him with code violations. It’s low-key hilarious, but it also speaks to the way that the spin-off series is about power and institutions. But it’s also a show explicitly about work, with petty office politics and bureaucracy as a constant. The show is arguably at its weakest when it leaves the subject of work behind and gets lost in… weird grimdark stuff.

It was perhaps the first series I ever watched in which work was not just the frame for storytelling but the subject. Television shows have often been set in workplaces because they provide a stable environment where different characters can interact, but the subject of work itself was often glossed over, in the same way that medical bills were rarely addressed in hospital dramas.

As a show obsessed with labour, Angel was preceded by series like Sports Night and the deranged Profit (David Greenwalt’s previous show before Angel), but I would argue that 2005’s The Office heralded a shift in the way that work was viewed in mainstream television. Parks and Recreation, The IT Crowd, Corporate, Superstore, Silicon Valley, 2 Broke Girls, Loki — all of them centre the endless hustle and grind of work.

Enter Severance (Apple TV+), a nightmare satire of the workplace and possibly my favourite show in years. The series has a high-concept premise — what if your work and personal lives were literally separated? — and an aesthetic that feels like Le Corbusier trying to make a Spike Jonze film.

Severance follows Mark Scout (Adam Scott), a grief-stricken man who has opted for the procedure to take a job with Lumon Industries. His duties are deemed too sensitive to risk leaks, so he is effectively split into two people: one who goes to and leaves the office, and another who can never leave. In the first episode, one of his co-workers (Jon Turturro) greets him with the joke “What’s for dinner?” Only as the series goes on does the utter bleakness of the quip sink in — the severed employees, or “innies” in Lumon parlance, have never and will never have dinner.

It’s pure nightmare enclosed within the canted reality of a workplace whose ethics seem stuck in the nineteenth century (the patriarchal founder Kier Eagan dominates their world, with slogans like “Let not weakness live in your veins” decorating the walls). The severed employees are treated like adult children, absorbing simplistic lessons and rewarded with truly crappy perks. But as the series progresses, the lives of the innies and outies begin to converge in strange ways.

The first season finale airs this Friday. I recommend you call in sick to watch it.