Apple TV+’s foreboding drama Severance instantly exudes creepiness. It opens with Helly (Britt Lower) lying face down, prop-like on a brown table too big for the dull conference room. She awakens as a new employee of the shadowy corporation Lumon Industries, with no knowledge of how it happened or who she is. It turns out that Helly opted to undergo the “severance program,” a medical procedure that takes work-life balance to controversial extremes. A chip implant cuts out real-world memories, so volunteering staffers forget their personal lives while in the office to avoid distractions. Major red-flag alert.
Helly’s “innie” (her workplace persona, as the show phrases it) feels violated. Unlike her “outtie,” she didn’t choose a strange nine-to-five in the macro data refining (MDR) team alongside Mark (Adam Scott), Irving (John Turturro), and Dylan (Zach Cherry), especially not in a clinical office where all-white walls are adorned only with one minimalist clock. She immediately tries to escape the building, full of bright, maze-like hallways and large empty rooms.
As Helly struggles to find a way out, a dreadful sense of entrapment sets in thanks to the looming space. Severance capitalizes on the post-pandemic fear of returning to the office, doubling as a timely satire and dark metaphor about loneliness and the choices it drives. Set decorator Andrew Baseman tells The A.V. Club that working on the show after lockdown “felt like art imitating life imitating a strange circumstance.”
Production designer Jeremy Hindle tells The A.V. Club he always wanted to work on a show with a fun oddity to it. “We quickly realize Helly, Mark, and their colleagues are like children being born here, discovering a perfectly designed playground,” he says. “Stanley Kubrick was a massive reference because his movies inherently have the same sterile feeling.” Series creator Dan Erickson, executive producer Ben Stiller (who co-directs with Aoife McArdle), and Hindle were on the same page about referencing Jacques Tati’s 1967 film, Playtime, known for its enormous, visually complex set. “When I read the show’s script, I said, ‘Okay, this is it; this is like my Twin Peaks.’”
Severance is a sci-fi psychological thriller that purposefully floats in time. While the technology is clearly futuristic (an elevator ride turns memories on and off), the characters use flip phones and peculiar, outdated computers. A skewed approach to the era allowed Hindle and Baseman to create a surreal new world from scratch. They were inspired by manufacturing giant John Deere’s steely, Illinois-based headquarters, and New Jersey’s Bell Labs, an R&D facility whose exteriors serve as Lumon’s outdoors (complete with snow-capped CGI mountains). “They opened in the ’60s when no one took photos or candles to their desks,” Hindle says. “You didn’t take your work home either. It’s not like that now. This show is about the work-life balance, so it felt fitting.”
Baseman adds that Stiller and Erickson were clear on the interiors not recreating any office spaces seen on TV before. To that extent, they found a contrast to the drab walls and ceilings with lots of greens (used in lobby rugs, plush couches, flooring). “Green makes you think of nature but it isn’t actually popular for decor. It’s off-putting,” Baseman adds. “I shopped for every imaginable green item and searched for furniture available overseas. I didn’t want iconic pieces normally seen everywhere; we were going for unique.” He reveals they ordered lots of pieces from Eastern Europe, including eager floor supervisor Milchik’s (Tramell Tillman) AV cart with a monitor on it. “It was a mix of getting custom stuff and finding unusual things.”
Mark, Helly, Irving, and Dylan’s tiny cubicles are prominently featured sets. Their small workstations (with sliding partitions) are attached together like one big desk, placed in the center of “an 80 by 40 square foot hall,” Hindle explains. All the extra room surrounding them adds to the uneasiness. “I also made the ceiling of this room really low, around seven feet, before adding two inches after a camera test,” he adds. They accomplished the goal of making it look like a bizarro jungle gym. The space lets them do kids’ stuff, like melon parties and dance breaks, weird celebrations positioned as perks by corporate overlords.
Lumon’s endless hallways are a harrowing design; its bright ceiling lights cast an eerie glow on whoever traipses underneath (the lean look is reminiscent of The Shining’s elevator scene before all the blood gushes out). The crew built 600 to 800 feet of hallways on the stage, the longest one being around 140 feet. “It actually keeps going in circles,” Hindle says. Baseman also found the task daunting: “For us, it was about finding miles and miles of the right gray and white tiles and hardware, which we got from England.”
The symbolism of hallways is two-fold. Its almost prison-like structure is isolating, but according to Hindle, they’re also a funnel: “The farther the four of them get, the wider the space is than when they entered because they explore and learn about previously unknown departments,” including curious one in episode five, where a single employee feeds baby goats (the dark hallway lighting as Mark and Helly walk away from this discovery is truly macabre). The team also finds the Optics And Design (O&D) division led by Burt (Christopher Walken), Irving’s sweet potential love interest. Burt’s team stores biblical paintings that gradually shed light on Lumon’s cultish origins.
O&D’s secret workspace has rows and rows of printers, akin to archetypal modern offices full of computers, with more employees than MDR. They probably manufacture all Lumon-branded items underground. “It’s is an Elon Musk-like billionaire company with money flexibility. They just manufacture everything of their own, like mugs, pencils, erasers, keyboards [procured here by Severance prop master Cat Miller]. They can’t buy these items from outside without someone realizing the company actually does,” Hindle says.
Mark’s boss, Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), actively monitors the team through hidden cameras. The surveillance angles make the employees look even more like experimental ants, or cogs of a ridiculous machine. It’s a menacing environment made worse by Theodore Shapiro’s haunting background score. Together, they elevate Severance’s biggest suspense—what, exactly, is this corporation’s mission? It’s certainly nothing noble. MDR folks mindlessly crunch numbers on a screen with no idea of reason or impact. They forego their actual lives for eight hours a day to do this.
Baseman and Hindle still set up characters’ desks to look somewhat personalized (see Dylan’s origami animals made from Lumon stationary and sculptures made out of paper clips). “It’s how they entertain themselves,” Hindle says. Their outside lives inadvertently sneak into their “innie” universe in odd ways, like Irving visualizing black goo dripping from the ceiling. The audience is only privy to Mark’s non-work life: He’s grieving his wife’s death, helping out his pregnant sister, Devon (Jen Tullock), and her mildly annoying partner, Ricken (Michael Chernus).
Ricken’s recently published book (titled The You You Are, with a luminous red cover) plays a vital role once it finds its way into Lumon’s subbasement. The red was a specific choice, Hindle and Baseman confirm. Its vivid color immediately goes against the dreariness of, well, everything else. Severance’s color choices in general speak volumes about its characters. Devon and Ricken’s warmer existence is marked by wood tones and reds; Helly’s deep blue outfits are also cooling, a mood-changing shade that disconcertingly mirrors Harmony’s.“It was informative to know how to define characters this way,” Baseman says.
Yet somehow all the minimalism actually makes Severance visually enticing. Hindle was up for the challenge of convincing audiences to be taken in by the show’s mundane office decor. “Yes, looking at desks and dividers can be boring, but it requires really minute details. It’s not a quick spaceship sci-fi show, where everyone immediately understands what’s happening,” he explains. “It’s so funny to me when people say, ‘[The show]’s so slow,’” he continues. “We’re so used to knowing something in the first 10 minutes.”
Baseman says with his experience on prop-heavy projects like Crazy Rich Asians, Gotham, and now Hocus Pocus 2, it was fun to pare back for a change. “I’m thankful you get to see all of it here, from the tiny light switches dials to subliminal lamps and frames. In most projects, the characters get a closeup, but [you can] tell the story with the sets too.”