Apple TV’s ‘Severance’ is the real deal

Apple TV’s “Severance”

Things have been quiet of late, in this the much heralded golden age of television. There has been plenty of perfectly watchable, eminently adequate fodder on offer from the various streaming services and their terrestrial brethren. But very little to write home about. 

So it was with a slight sense of wariness that I sat down to watch Severance, notwithstanding all the noise it’s generated. But for once, that hype was entirely justified. Happily, it’s the real deal.

It’s a high concept, Big Idea series. A nefarious and implicitly evil tech corporation has invented a chip that allows you to separate, sever, your work-you from your home-you. So as you work through the mindless chores at the faceless office where you work, you’ve no idea what you do or who you are for the rest of the day when you’re at home. 

The same neck of the woods.

As you descend in the elevator at the end of the day, the chip kicks in, and you step out on to the ground floor as your home-you, or what they call your ‘outie’. And after you get back into the elevator as your outie the following morning, you emerge on the ‘severance’ floor as your ‘innie’. Completely oblivious as what you might have got up to in between. 

Why would anybody want that? Well, Mark has recently lost his wife in a car crash. And, he figures, at least for 8 hours a day he’ll be spared the bottomless grief he’s floored by during the other 16.

It’s avowedly left of field and off kilter, and veers from the surreally mundane to menacing and back, often in the same scene. Think Charlie Kaufman meets David Lynch, where both have had their wings clipped to rein their flights of fancy in. Which is, respectively, both good and bad.

Everything about Severance is impeccably crafted. The art direction is pristine, the directing, by Ben Stiller, is foot perfect and the acting is exceptional across the board. 

All the gang on the Severance floor.

Adam Scott takes the lead as Mark, and is impressively abetted by Britt Lower, Zach Cherry, John Turturro and, improbably, Christopher Walken, all of whom are outstanding as his increasingly rebellious co-workers. But Patricia Arquette manages to somehow steal the show, as the nearest thing to a plausible and genuinely terrifying realisation of the wicked witch of the West. 

And, rather than addressing them head on, it sensibly flirts around the philosophical questions that it raises about the self, purpose, meaning, work-life balance and agency. Most impressively of all, it builds momentum and raises the stakes continually, thanks to the perfectly meted out parcels of story. And the increasingly compelling cliff-hangers that each episode concludes with.

It might not quite be up there with series 1 of Twin Peaks, and I hope it does a better job than that show did of maintaining its momentum into series 2. But it’s comfortably the best show to grace our screens since Bojack pursued and fed his demons (reviewed earlier by me here).

You can see the trailer for Severance here:

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Series 6 “Mad Men”, Drugs and a Rare High.

Twin Peaks' dream sequence.

Twin Peaks’ dream sequence.

In retrospect, the arrival of Twin Peaks onto our screens in 1990 changed everything. On the one hand it exploded the possibilities of what a television series could aim for and encompass. And on the other, it marked the beginning of what would become a complete exodus of serious, grown-up populist drama from cinema onto television.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

The exquisite At The Height Of Summer.

You can still see serious drama in the cinema. Films from Atom Egoyan, Asghar Farhadi reviewed earlier here, Julio Medem, Jafar Panahi reviewed earlier here, Lynne Ramsay, Tod Solondz, and Tran Anh Hung. And of course David Lynch. But they are very much the exceptions. The vast majority of what is on offer these days at the cinema is aimed at teenage boys and pubescent girls.

Television on the other hand has produced, to pick but four of a long, long list, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And it all began with Twin Peaks, which was the precedent, the blueprint, and the inspiration for them all.

Of the many, many things that Twin Peaks did so effortlessly well, the one thing that most people probably think of is dreams. Specifically, the dream sequence that so memorably ended the second episode.

Lynch got his actors to memorize and say their lines backwards, which he filmed, and then reversed in the editing suite. Similarly, he got them to perform some of their actions – but crucially not all of them – in the same way. It’s dazzlingly unsettling, and you can see it again here.

Lynch has always had a sensational handle on dreams. David Thompson astutely writes in his entry on Mulholland Dr. that the Dr of the title refers not to Drive but to dream here. It’s striking how often dream crops up in the dialogue. And his career began of course with the all too convincing portrayal of a living nightmare in Eraserhead.

So intimidated was David Chase by Lynch and his facility with dreams that he was rendered creatively petrified. Dreams are the one thing that The Sopranos failed to dazzle on.

If Chase is the televisual son of Lynch, then Matthew Weiner is his spiritual grandchild. But Mad Men has mostly avoided dreams. What it’s done instead is to tackle the one area that’s even more difficult to get right than dreams; drugs.

Mad Men.

Mad Men.

After all, at least in theory, anything’s possible in dreams. But for anyone who’s ever taken opiates, amphetamines or hallucinogenics, there’s only ever one way that that looks or feels. And it’s cringe-inducing to watch whenever anyone tries and gets it wrong.

Impressively, on the few occasions that drugs have surfaced in Mad Men, they’ve got it brilliantly right. There was that brief scene in series 2 when Don had his – and the show’s – first joint. There’s was the justly celebrated scene in series 5 when Roger does LSD here.

And now in series 6, there’s a whole episode, 8 The Crash, when a Dr. Roberts type figure gives Don and the rest on the creative team a shot each of speed. I’ll not spoil anything by giving any of it away, but it captures perfectly that misplaced sense of certainty that some drugs cause you to fix on otherwise meaningless ephemera. And it’s absolutely, and horribly hilarious.

Series 6 is currently hidden away in the depths of RTE2’s  Tuesday night schedule, like a former hippies’ final acid tab buried deep in a secret draw.

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French Television Comes of Age with Beguiling “The Returned”.

The Returned.

The Returned.

One of the things that the French critic Roland Barthes was referring to in his Mythologies (1957) was the assumption that going to theatre was better for you than going to the cinema. And that best of all was reading a book. The myth being, that some things are necessarily better for you than others.

It was in France that Le Cahiers du Cinéma was launched as a reaction to that. And from there, the French New Wave of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Demy and Chabrol emerged.

Hotel Costes.

Hotel Costes.

Equally, they refused to snigger at pop music.  From Serge Gainsbourg and Francoise Hardy to Daft Punk and Stéphane Pompougnac – and if you’ve yet to discover the laidback seductively louche lounge world of Hôtel Costes, then lucky you. It awaits. You can begin here with this video from Hôtel Costes 15.

But for whatever reason, the French have always refused to look at television other than from a lofty, disdainful height. Ironically, they’ve always viewed it in much the same way that the rest of the world used to regard cinema. So The Returned is a welcome corrective to an uncharacteristic prejudice.

The series revolves around a school bus that has crashed over a cliff and the stories that emerge as the dead children re-surface as if nothing had happened. The reason that it all works so well is that everything is played absolutely straight.

It’s a million miles away from any of the horror genre gore and blood fests that have slipped into vogue of late. What it’s closest to is probably Breaking Bad’s first two and best series’. But without any of the thriller elements that came alas to dominate the latter’s later episodes.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Like Breaking Bad, it asks what would you do if your dead daughter suddenly turned up four years after her death? Really. How would you react?

The other obvious touchstone, as is invariably referenced, is Twin Peaks. Which isn’t terribly fair, as unsurprisingly it is in no way as visually or as sonically daring. But then again, what is?

That caveat aside, there is a similarly eerie air to events here. And it really is an impressively cinematic piece of work.

The Returned.

The Returned.

That it’s not quite sufficiently Lynchian is hardly the most damning thing you could hurl at a director. It’s comfortably the best thing you’ll see on television this year.

The Returned began on Channel 4 last weekend. But don’t worry if you missed the first episode. It won’t make you any the less wiser about what’s going on. And you will regret it if you don’t start tuning in.

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HBO’s “Entourage” Ends on a High.

Entourage came to an end this year with its eighth and final series. The show revolves around up and coming Hollywood heart-throb Vince and his motley crew. There’s his best friend and manager E, his less successful actor brother Drama (played by Kevin Dillon, the less successful actor brother of Matt), his friend and gofer Turtle, and his agent Ari, and his wife, assistant and various love interests.

It’s Mark Wahlberg’s baby, and all of the characters are based unashamedly and far from loosely on his own real life cast of characters. It could easily have been insufferable, like watching one of those never-ending in-jokes that Sinatra and his rat pack used to make in Las Vegas and release as a movie. As with drugs, fun to do, oh so tedious to watch.

But thanks to its clever plotting, gentle banter and pitch-perfect performances it managed instead to be irrepressibly effervescent. Basically 30 Rock for boys, it was impossible not to be charmed. Or at least it was for its first few series’.

American TV series are written in the spirit of un-diluted capitalism. Once a show has got beyond its pilot and graduated into its first and second series, its numbers are relentlessly poured over. And the writers are called back in and told which of their storylines have and have not worked, and which elements of the show need to be dialed up and which ones quietly shelved.

So that frequently, later episodes in a series have been completely re-imagined in response to how the audience reacted to the different storylines in the first few episodes.

Unsurprisingly, this can sometimes be disastrous. Series 2 of Twin Peaks, and much of the latter half of Lost being obvious examples. But here it has to be admitted the system has undeniably worked.

What had been so endearing about the troupe initially was that, despite all the outward appearances of living the wet dream in an endless reel of uninhibited debauchery and unrestrained hedonism, all of their lives sucked. Every one of their relationships was a complete disaster.

But by the time we get to series 5, and especially 6 and 7, they have each become so garishly successful, that everything else about their lives has been drowned out. You’d have episodes in which one character gives the other a Maserati, and then later they race one another at the traffic lights.

Nobody minds seeing success, in fact we love watching pretty young things living the dream, so long as they are all profoundly and visibly unhappy. Thankfully, the homework was done, and the writers duly responded. And accordingly, come series 8 absolutely everything is going wrong for each and every one of them, and in every conceivable way. It’s great.

There’s talk at the moment of a movie follow-up. Let’s hope they hurry up and script it. They’re back on a roll.

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“Crazy Clown Time” – David Lynch + “Bad As Me” – Tom Waits

For those who regard him as the most important living artist working in any medium, and I count myself among their number, the first full length album released by David Lynch was always going to be something of a slight disappointment. The expectations it created were never likely to be realised.

Nobody, with the possible exception of Robert Altman, has understood quite so clearly the palpable importance of sound in film. So the music employed by Lynch has always been fundamental to the mood and menace that his films evoke.

Lynch wrote the lyrics for his long-time musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti when they teamed up for the monumental and still ground-breaking Twin Peaks, and the all too ethereal Julee Cruise added the gloss to the lush soundtrack they together produced. Then in 2010, he teamed up with producer supremo Danger Mouse and the ill-fated Sparklehorse to produce the melancholy Dark Night Of The Soul (reviewed earlier here).

So the eventual release of an album proper oughtn’t really to have been too terribly surprising, and nor should the way it sounds be. Moody blues, at the RnB end of the spectrum, spiked with menacing guitar riffs and laced with the occasional female vocal line, with Lynch’s own vocals buried in a sea of vocoder synths.

If you’re looking for a definitive album experience, then this isn’t it. But if you want to luxuriate in the kind of mood his films evoke, then enjoy. It’s the kind of album you might only stick on every six months or so, but it’s one that you’ll continue returning to for years to come.

Strangely, that’s not something that can be said for the latest Tom Waits album. Which is odd, because superficially, it’s delightful. It’s basically a greatest hits album made up of all new material. What could be more satisfying than that?

You get bits of the guttergravel romanticism of Blue Valentine, industrial, N’Orlins RnB à la Rain Dogs, the coiffured avant-garde of the underrated Pale Rider, plus the mandatory novelty act of the title track. It’s hardly Waits’ fault if all the innovations and freshness that were once so exciting have now become the norm. And the first couple of listens will bring a smile to the most curmudgeonly of faces.

And yet. You just know, that after that fourth or fifth listen, you’re never going to put it on again.