Our Econ Extra Credit: Documentary Studies series usually features one film a month, on a Marketplace theme, that we watch and analyze with our audience. (You can sign up for our free newsletter here!)
For the month of July, we’re taking a detour through the world of television drama. Instead of a film, we invite you watch along for nine episodes of a show: “Severance,” which is available for streaming on Apple TV+.
Here’s the premise: Suppose you could sign up for a medical procedure that put a tiny implant in your brain which splits up your everyday life into two parts, your work life and your home life, and neither self can remember the other. So you become a work self who can’t remember what life outside of the job is like and a home self who has no memory of life at work. You’re completely unaware of what happens inside the office. Would you do it? At what cost? And what if you happened to work for some shady, exploitative megacorporation?
That’s where we start with “Severance.” Dan Erickson, the show’s creator, showrunner and head writer, joins “Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio to delve in. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Dan, what did somebody ever do to you, in an office setting, that led you to tell this tale?
Dan Erickson: So much, so much. No, it was a series of — you know, I don’t think I ever had a job that was particularly nightmarish compared to anybody else’s job. It was a series of temp jobs that I had while I was working on the script nine, 10 years ago, and I just started to notice a lot of these these same, these weird “corporate-isms” that would that would come through in each of the jobs. And they sort of started to build this image of this weird, monolithic company that I wanted to tell the story about.
Brancaccio: I mean, I was reading that even at an advanced stage of this project, when you first learn that Ben Stiller himself might be interested — or at least you get the meeting — is it true you were driving for Postmates at that point?
Erickson: It’s true. I was driving for Postmates and I was terrible at it. I was like their worst driver in Los Angeles, I think. I didn’t have a car. I had a little scooter, like a Vespa-style scooter. And I had rigged this thing on the back to carry food around. And just this giant order that I had been driving — I was almost at the place and I was already really late. And all of a sudden I look back and it’s just gone flying off the back of my scooter and has been run over by a car. So that happened like two days before we had the meeting [with Ben Stiller, who directed the first season of “Severance,”], or I had the Ben meeting. So that was quite a week.
Brancaccio: It’s that sort of situation, right? Where you’re doing this work, which may or may not be ennobling at the moment, but if you just get through to the end of the day, and that’s when you could use a little severance in your life. A little, I don’t know, disassociation.
Erickson: Yeah, it’s funny. I always say that I wouldn’t get the surgery, like I wouldn’t let them put the chip in my head. But on a day-to-day basis, there have definitely been days where they’re like, “Hey, do you want to sever today?” And I’d be like, “Yes. Hell yes.” You know, sometimes you’re just walking into work and it’s so daunting, the idea of going in and spending eight hours in a particular place. So I think sometimes, on a day-to-day basis, I would do it.
A different version of yourself at work
Brancaccio: Well, at some level we encourage managers to disconnect between their personal selves and their work selves. I mean, I know a business school professor, he’s retired now, who says that many MBA programs select for sociopaths, right? Because if you’re trying to groom the manager who can do a mass layoff, and then move on with the rest of his day like nothing happened, that person has to set aside who he really is, or who she really is.
Erickson: Yeah, that’s terrifying. And yeah, it’s absolutely, you know, one of the main things that the show is about. This idea that you put yourself in a particular place or situation where you act in a way that is completely different from how you would normally act. And that you’re able to sort of disassociate and segment that part of yourself off and say, “Well, that wasn’t me, that was work me. I would never actually do something like that.” And I found as I was going to these different jobs, you know, I fortunately was never in a high enough position to have to lay off a bunch of people, or anything like that. But I found that I was wearing a mask at each of these different places. [At] the temp job at the dentist office where I worked at I was a very different person from the school where I was a registrar for a while. It’s just weird. You become this different version of yourself depending on what you think is expected. And sometimes that can get really dark.
Brancaccio: And the show demonstrates the following as well: We do it in reverse, right? We may have a terrible trauma in our personal lives and are expected to show up at work, up and at ’em, chipper and focused, and somehow, again, disassociate from what we just went through before we walked in the door.
Erickson: Yeah, yeah. One of the most disturbing things that I realized as I was writing it is it can be hard to disassociate in that way, from your real life, but it can be a major comfort too. And I remember when I was writing the pilot, I had gone through a pretty devastating breakup just a couple of months prior and was still feeling it really hard. But there was something about going in and sitting at a desk and just not having to think about my own motivations at all. And just be like, “Well, I’m entering this data because I was told to, and I’m sort of turning off my brain and turning off my heart.” And it’s like, it’s a dark thing to find yourself wanting to do, but it was a comfort, like there is a comfort in that monotony. And that was part of what I found so scary about the whole thing as I was crafting the story.
Searching for purpose at work
Brancaccio: Now some of the workers at your fictional Lumon Industries do things like staring at fields of numbers looking for what are termed “bad numbers,” and then trying to dump them through a virtual trap door at the bottom of their screens. Why they do this, they have no idea. See what’s missing in this corporation you invented, Dan, is what the management philosophers call “purpose,” right? And they’ve linked this with employee performance. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re probably not going to be that committed to the activity.
Erickson: Well, it’s funny, though, because they try to manufacture that in these sort of weird artificial ways. Because you’re right, the workers don’t know and sort of can’t know what the numbers are, or what the actual nature of the work is. But then there are finger traps, and there are caricature portraits, and there are these little prizes that have come to signify achievement and signify importance to them. And it’s very much on the outside — getting a new house or getting a new car, you know, there’s all these sort of little status symbols that we endow with meaning because we need them to mean something. Not that a new house isn’t great. They are. But yeah, I feel like for Dylan, especially, that is where he derives meaning. Whereas someone like Irving is more of a zealot who is sort of more into this quasi-religious corporate history and corporate culture, surrounding Kier Eagan. But the common theme being that everybody is trying to find meaning in this place. And we sort of look for things that work for us to signify meaning and signify importance.
Brancaccio: Kier Eagan is the charismatic leader, the legendary founder, of this Lumon Industries. You see a big statue to him that is revered, earlier in the series. Now, by the way, on this idea of lack of purpose, it’s been documented. I know this is nerding out, but I found a McKinsey study, and they did a survey. “Are you living your purpose in your day-to-day work?” Forty-nine percent disagreed or strongly disagreed, 36% weren’t sure. So about 85% were not suffused with purpose or weren’t sure. So it’s like what we see in your fiction.
Erickson: Wow. Yeah. I mean, and I’ve definitely had jobs where it was jobs that sort of exist within bureaucracy, and in such a way where it’s like the job might not necessarily need to exist, except that it’s part of the bureaucratic structure. And so you do — I’ve had jobs like that, where I’m just like, “I don’t know who I’m helping. I don’t know what actual other human being on Earth is benefiting from what I’m doing. And if there is a purpose, I’m not seeing it.” And it’s a weird, disconcerting place to be.
From office rivalry to worker solidarity
Brancaccio: And apparently, it’s really bad management. Now, we work in our little silos, which become tribes that compete for resources. The management consultants tell us not to do it that way. But that’s what happens. In your show, these silos breed, I don’t know, what, deep suspicion, right?
Erickson: Yeah, that was a fun thing, that the sort of weird tribalism that has popped up between the departments. And that was sort of a fun thing that we were playing. Obviously, you’ve got the sort of Romeo and Juliet love story happening between Burt and Irving, who are in these two different departments. But that was always something that sort of felt like it went with the theme of “Severance,” and the theme of disassociation. And on a macro level, what does that look like? And I think, a lot of times, it looks like — even within a company itself, you often don’t know what the other departments are doing. And if management doesn’t want you to know, or doesn’t want you to ask those big questions, then one of their tools might be to pit you against each other and sort of divide and conquer a little bit. And breed mistrust of people who are working on your same level, so that you’re not focused on the people who are actually exploiting you, which, in this case and in many cases, are the bosses.
Brancaccio: Yeah. And your show has some optimism on this point of inter-office rivalry as well. I mean, if there can be some détente or a meeting of minds between these opposing sections of the same corporation, maybe the workers can use it to organize and push back. When Macrodata Refinement — [laughs] that was one of the one of the divisions — tries to embrace Optics and Design, you know, maybe there’s some power in that?
Erickson: I think there’s a lot of power in that. Yeah, absolutely. I always say I think it’s a hopeful show. And maybe that’s just from my perspective, but I think it’s very much a show about people discovering and awakening the humanity in each other in a place like this and in this sort of soulless world. And that that applies on a personal level, and then on a workers’ rights, organizing level, where it is like, what you see in this season is sort of the first coming together of these two departments that had been artificially kept apart. And these people starting to say, “We might be stronger together than we are separately.” Which I think is a hopeful idea. And it’s a hopeful moment in the show.
Really? Another office party?
Brancaccio: There’s an extended scene from your show that went … I guess I could say “viral.” It’s that party scene where Milchick, the manager, shows up to orchestrate a brief dance party. The employees didn’t ask for it, but they’re goaded to go along. It’s weird timing here, because in a few hours here at Marketplace, our boss is pushing us together for some office social merriment [laughs]. I’m sure it’ll be fun. But, I mean, that’s part of what’s on offer within organizations, are these moments. But you can’t really be your full, real self. You stay “severed” at these things, you know? On the job in real life, right? I mean, you’re not gonna just be the regular Dan Erickson if there’s an office party?
Erickson: No. They think they want that, but they don’t want that. Yeah, it’s such a weird scene. And it’s such a … I feel like, to me, it’s like simultaneously the funniest and scariest scene on the show. You know, you have to give a lot of that credit to Tramell Tillman, who’s just an absolutely brilliant actor, and has this way of suffusing the most terrifying malice into every smile and kind word. You often can’t tell what’s going on with him. That scene is saying, it’s like: “Casual Fridays, wear what you want … but don’t wear anything you want.” You know, it’s giving them this sort of illusion of self-expression and individuality and merriment, for a moment, before it’s sort of taken away. I think it’s my favorite scene in the whole season. Which is ironic, because I’m the idiot who tried to cut it in the scripting phase. We were we were looking at stuff where we could pull back and simplify the story. And I was like, “Well, what’s this? What about this dance scene? Why do they need to dance? What does that — I’ve seen dancing, we don’t need that.” And it was Mr. Ben Stiller who was like, “You know, I think it’s gonna be really special. I think it’s gonna be really cool.” He and Mark Friedman, the other producer. And it was the moment that the lights turned to the disco lights, and Tramell started moving, I was like, “Well, I was wrong.”
Brancaccio: So I mean, I don’t know if the showrunner actually gets to be, you know, on set at every moment. I did a little field trip the other day: 35 minutes south of Newark Airport in New Jersey is the old Bell Labs. That’s Lumon Industries, right?
Erickson: That’s Lumon! That’s Lumon. Yeah.
Brancaccio: You can go in, as the public, to the first floor. It’s, you know, a hipster office space upstairs and kind of a mall thing downstairs. But, boy, the hair goes up on the back of your neck because it’s what you guys used, right?
Erickson: It’s so crazy. And I believe that was the first location we scouted for Lumon. And we were just blown away, because we were like, it’s such a crazy, insane building. It’s so perfect for what we need. And somehow, I don’t think anyone’s shot there. Like, there may have been a couple of small things. But I think for the most part, it’s not like a building that you see in a bunch of shows or movies, which is kind of inexplicable to me because it’s so cool. But I think it had just recently been sort of renovated and changed to this to this different thing, where there is like this mall on the base floor of it. So I think we just lucked out with the timing. But that building was great. It’s just so weird to sit in that space because it’s so massive.
Brancaccio: Yeah, it’s so intense. And, you know, Bell Labs, AT&T Bell Labs, was where a lot of the 20th century was invented.