After a couple of hours of the Kafka/Charlie Kaufman-esque techno dramedy Severance (Apple TV+, weekly episodes through April 8), a pall briefly settles in. It’s an emotion that mirrors the grim, shadowy landscape where the main character lives half his life. At home, Mark (Adam Scott, above) tends to drink himself to sleep, mourning the death of his wife. But when he checks in every morning at Lumon, the enormous, austere company where he works, he loses all memory of his grief, and also his wife, and everything about himself but his name.
That’s because he and the other workers have agreed to “severance,” allowing Lumon to implant a chip in their brains that magically blocks any memories of the outside world while they’re on the job, and any memories of the office after punching the clock each day. The two separate sides of their programmed selves are referred to as innies and outies. And Lumon’s practices have raised some protests in the “real” world.
Mark toils in the Macrodata Refinement Department (no, I can’t really explain what they do, and neither can he), sharing a fluorescent-bright office with three colleagues: the fastidious Irving (John Turturro), newcomer Helly (Britt Lower), who almost immediately regrets the job her “outie” has signed her up for, and the sardonic Dylan (Zach Cherry). They never meet outside the office because, well, the procedure they’ve undergone wouldn’t let them recognize each other beyond the walls of Lumon anyway.
Created by Dan Erickson, with six of its nine episodes directed by Ben Stiller, Severance’s setup allows for some interesting sci-fi musings on the nature of what we know as reality, and especially the things about our life experiences that make us who we are. Much of its odd joys come from the interplay of the four main characters as they slowly determine to find out more about the company where they work. Looking for answers, they prowl endless white corridors that make them resemble human lab rats. On one of these rambles they encounter the Optics and Design department, overseen by Burt (the inimitable Christopher Walken), who embarks on a sweetly hesitant almost-romance with Irving.
The head of all departments is Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette), a stern mommy figure with an artificial, glacial demeanor and a fanatic loyalty to Lumon. What Mark doesn’t, can’t, know is that outside of Lumon, the un-severed Cobel is known by another name. She presents herself as a consciously “eccentric” woman of a certain age . . . and she’s Mark’s next-door neighbor, a vantage point to keep an eye on his doings. She even ingratiates herself into the life of Mark’s pregnant sister. Why? Dunno yet.
The Severance procedure works like a biologically enforced NDA: Employees literally cannot tell anyone outside of Lumon what happens there. But the innies themselves, as they spend each workday completing mysterious, seemingly meaningless tasks, don’t really understand what the company actually does. The fact that it’s the legacy of a strange, 19th century family/cult (commemorated with life-sized figures of former CEOs in Lumon’s creepy internal museum) makes the mystery even more elusive.
After watching episode seven, with only two remaining, I can’t predict if it’s a mystery that will be solved. Or if we’ll ever get a look at the personal, outie lives of Mark’s colleagues. Or if Severance will ever decide if it’s a black comedy or moody thriller; those goalposts keep shifting. Still, I’m enjoying the ride — or at least, I began to once I pushed through the first couple of hours that set up the premise.
HBO MAX | The Tourist
As with Severance, amnesia and the mystery of identity turn up as themes in The Tourist (six episodes). A man, played by Jamie Dornan and known for most of the limited series as, yes, The Man, gets slammed in his car by a big rig as he drives across the Australian Outback. He comes to in the hospital with no idea who he is. As he tries to figure it out with the comical help of a small-town traffic cop named Helen (Danielle Macdonald), the more they learn, the more it seems The Man won’t like the man he proves to be.
Their search takes them to other small towns, into the orbit of an attractive young woman (Shalom Brune-Franklin) who calls herself Luci but has multiple other IDs and as many question marks in her life as Dornan’s character. They also have to contend with a corrupt cop (Damon Herriman), a Greek psycho named Kostas (Alex Dimitriades) and his unstoppable, gravel-voiced henchman Billy (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). Dornan, as he proved in the Fifty Shades franchise, is easy on the eyes, but the charming Macdonald over-telegraphs her characters golly-mate naivete. Tourist spins its wheels during the middle episodes and isn’t as smart, funny or twisty as it sometimes thinks it is. (The show was written by brothers Harry and Jack Williams, two producers of the great, very different Fleabag.) Even if it doesn’t wind up exactly where you hoped, in its stronger moments Tourist is a trip worth taking . . . at least some of the way.
NETFLIX | Pieces of Her
Oh, yeah, there’s another limited series out there driven by a central character’s mysterious identity and past. That’s Pieces of Her (eight episodes), based on a novel from Georgia crime writer Karin Slaughter. The main reason to watch? Toni Collette, elevating this Netflix procedural as she did in 2019’s very strong Unbelievable.
Here she’s Laura, a Georgia woman who survived a bout of cancer and now helps ease returning soldiers back into civilian life. Her daughter Andy (Bella Heathcote in a performance a little heavy on simpering) is a 911 dispatcher, a law enforcement connection that makes her doubly mortified when she freezes in a moment of crisis. That’s when, at a restaurant for her 30th birthday, an armed man walks in and starts shooting. And it’s Andy’s mom who confronts the guy and kills him with a swift authority that makes everyone wonder where and how Laura learned such lethal skills.
In unraveling this mystery, the story sends Andy on the road for answers, and flashes back to Laura’s younger identity as Jane Queller (Jessica Barden), a classical pianist in a very wealthy family whose promising career is upended when she meets an activist named Nick (Joe Dempsie). He’s the sort of guy whose idealism camouflages darker instincts, and he pulls Jane, and her brothers, into some dangerous situations. These flashbacks take up a big portion of the episodes, and though Barden is good (though she was better in Netflix’s The End of the F***ing World), I found myself missing Collette.
I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Slaughter’s books. If you have, you’ll know there’s, well, much muchness about them in their pile-on of twists and revelations. Pieces is a good representative, to the point that you may wonder if Slaughter is paid per plot contortion. The more Laura/Jane’s past life is revealed, the less interesting the series becomes.
NETFLIX | The Andy Warhol Diaries
It isn’t necessary to have been alive and alert during the 1980s, ’70s and even the ’60s. But it can enhance the pleasures of watching The Andy Warhol Diaries (six episodes), a documentary series heavy on talking head testimony and memories. It leans equally on Warhol’s importance as an artist and a cultural icon. Diaries also finds an interesting filter by focusing on three men in Warhol’s life, at least two of them romantically involved with him; the third, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, may or may not have been sexually involved with the older man, but their mentor-protégé dynamic was a charged one.
The series is narrated by Warhol himself. Well, sort of. Actor-clown Bill Irwin, his voice modulated by an AI program, reads in Warhol’s laconic/childish voice from the entries that constituted the journal entries he jotted, especially during the ’80s. The early episodes get us up to familiar speed about Warhol’s background, his Pittsburgh, Roman Catholic childhood, then his move to and artistic explosion in New York City. We get the Factory scene, the shooting that almost killed him and made him a literally wounded figure thenceforward. Jerry Hall shows up as a representative of the Studio 54 days. And downtown artists Kenny Scharf, Fab 5 Freddie and David LaChapelle recall the art world scene of the ‘’80s, which many of their contemporaries failed to survive due to AIDS and drugs.
The real interest lies in Warhol’s somewhat opaque relationship with Jed Johnson, a young gay beauty who put up with some of the artist’s worst 1970s and early ’80s behavior, then traded up for another boyfriend and a career in design when he saw no point in going on. He died in the TWA Flight 800 crash many years later, in 1996. AIDS took out Johnson’s replacement, Jon Gould, a young, closeted Paramount Studio’s executive who was Warhol’s straight-acting, GQ ideal.
Diaries overstays its presence by a half hour or so. There’s a little too much self-indulgent pontificating about art from some of the talking heads here. But there’s also a lot of incisive stuff, making it well worth the time investment to watch.
NETFLIX | The Adam Project
Moving along from Pop art to dumb, pop fun, the stand-alone Netflix film The Adam Project stars Ryan Reynolds as, basically, Ryan Reynolds: the smartass (but often very funny) persona he maintains in most of his projects, especially his Deadpool flicks.
Here he plays Adam, a time traveler from 2050 who crash lands his wormhole-jumping jet in his old neighborhood, but in the wrong year. It’s 2022, and he was aiming to hit 2018. The “why” is the whole point of the plot-heavy film, but its main kicks derive from following Adam as he meets and has to deal with his 12-year-old younger self (Walker Scobell, who make an on-point mini-Reynolds, matching the older actor one snarky line at a time).
The film also stars Jennifer Garner as Adam’s mom, grieving the death of her husband Louis, played by Garner’s 13 Going on 30 costar and Marvel’s Hulk, Mark Ruffalo. It’s a time-travel movie, so you know Louis’s death won’t keep him offscreen forever, any more than it will Zoe Saldana reappearing as Adam’s wife from the future, who has gone missing. There’s also two versions of the great Catherine Keener as a hissable villain.
Directed by Reynolds’s Free Guy collaborator Shawn Levy, The Adam Project includes little homages to Return of the Jedi (a hover-scooter forest chase), Empire Strikes Back (when Adam slips away from aerial pursuit by parking his jet in a cave) and even Field of Dreams (a father and sons game of catch). And yeah, we’ve seen time travel conundrums and father-son relationships thrown together before, notably in Frequency. So no, Project isn’t brimming with originality, but it knows how to fit familiar parts together in an entertaining way.
HULU | Fresh
I was debating whether or not to recommend the original movie Fresh, because it won’t be everybody’s cup of blood. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Noa, a single woman taking a spin on the dating app wheel. About to give up after a series of losers, she meets Steve (Sebastian Stan, currently playing one half of the famous sex-tape duo in Hulu’s Pam & Tommy). Steve is a doctor who takes her on some dreamy dates, until one of them ends with her chained to the wall of a room in his rural vacation home. Seems she’s being prepped to join similar of Steve’s “dates,” who ended up having their flesh and body parts expertly harvested by the sweet-seeming surgeon, and sent on to well-paying clients in a cannibal club. Fresh manages the trick of being gross but engaging, as we see Noa’s best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) searching for her, ultimately leading to some nasty, satisfying girl power. Approach with caution if you’re up for some gory fun.
NETFLIX | Bridgerton
Dear readers, all the citizens of the ton have assembled at Netflix Palace to enjoy the overdue second season of Bridgerton (eight episodes). Like the books the show is based on, each season devotes itself to the love life of a separate member of the Bridgertons, the well-heeled Regency era British family. Since Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) was married off in the first season, that means her husband the duke, and the show’s breakout star, Regé-Jean Page, is sitting this one out (and making fans hope he’ll be tapped as the next 007).
This time around, the focus is on eldest son and rake extraordinary Anthony (Jonathan Bailey), who throws himself into the dating scene with resolve if not romance. His hopes attach to the “diamond of the season.” the lovely British-Indian Edwina (Charithra Chandran). Anthony’s only obstacle is her half sister Kate (Simone Ashley, of Sex Education). But from Anthony and Kate’s initial meet cute, galloping away through the countryside, it’s very clear how this will all turn out.
So, yes, the formula (borrowed from Jane Austen’s Lizzie-Darcy tensions in Pride and Prejudice) is here, as is the emphasis on high-minded women with thoughts far ahead of their era, and historically inaccurate, color-blind casting that gives the show its pleasurable, multi-hued palette. Many of the main characters’ faces are now a little too familiar; some of the charm (and the sex) of the first installment are gone. But it’s still a comfy watch for the undemanding.
APPLE TV+ | CODA
Also undemanding, and now award-winning, CODA has been available to stream for months now. I watched it way back when and liked it well enough. Especially the scene between new Oscar winner Troy Kotsur as a deaf father, gently placing his fingers on his daughter’s throat as she sings to try to understand why she’s in love with the art form. It’s a charming movie, and recommended, but only if you’re ready for something that plays like an elevated movie-of-the-week that feels designed for the small screen.
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to last month's Streaming column by Steve here.