Layoff: Employees undergo surgery to separate work and personal life
Created by Dan Erickson. Directed by Ben Stiller and Aoife McArdle.
Television that examines the relationship between companies and their workers is rare. Breakup, a sci-fi dark comedy thriller released earlier this year on Apple TV, takes a step in that direction, with mixed results. The show received 14 Emmy nominations in July.
The story centers on the employees of an obscure multinational technology and pharmaceutical company, Lumon Industries, as they begin to investigate its many secrets.
Exactly what the company does, no one seems to know, although it has its hands in many pots. The company is headquartered in the town of Kier, named after its 19th-century founder and former CEO, Kier Eagan. A new proprietary technology has placed Lumon at the center of much controversy. The separation, a procedure used on some employees, implants a chip in the brain, partitioning its memory into two. “Separated” employees thus have a working self (an “innie”) and a non-working self (an “outtie”), who do not know each other. For innies, their entire existence and consciousness is confined to the office.
The protagonist, Mark Scout (Adam Scott), is one such employee who took a separate job at Lumon two years ago in order to forget the tragic death of his wife, at least eight hours a day. Outside, he spends his nights drinking alone in front of the television. At work, Mark is a conscientious employee who has just been promoted to head of the macrodata refinement (MDR) department after the unexplained disappearance of his colleague Petey (Yul Vazquez). Petey’s disappearance is the catalyst that allows Mark to ask questions and break the rules for the first time.
Mark’s first task is to train Petey’s replacement, Helly (Britt Lower), who is struggling to adjust to her new position. She submits several desperate resignation requests upon her release via management, only to have them repeatedly denied. Irving (John Turturro) and Dylan (Zach Cherry) are the other two data “refiners”. Refiners’ job is to look at a computer screen and sort floating numbers based on the emotion the numbers inexplicably evoke.
Lumon is a weird place. The layout of the “separate” floor is a maze of sterile, white hallways punctuated by numerous unmarked doors. The Lumon Handbook, a three-volume tome from which the leadership consistently quotes the cult and revered founder Kier, sits in a special nook under his portrait. Paintings of Lumon’s parables and signs with Kier’s words hang on the walls: “Let not weakness live in your veins.”
At times, the unsettling atmosphere inside Lumon successfully conveys the company’s secrecy and its efforts to control its workforce. After MDR befriended the Optics and Design department, management “accidentally” faxed them a photo of a painting that appears to depict Optics massacring MDR. Obviously, lengths are being taken to keep the departments divided.
Other times, Lumon’s idiosyncrasies add nothing but unnecessary and even silly mystery. The refiners discover a department where a man is giving bottles of milk to a room full of kids. As a perk for meeting his quarterly data-sharpening quota, Dylan gets to eat waffles and watch an erotic dance.
One evening after work, Mark is approached by his former co-worker Petey, whom of course he doesn’t remember. Petey has undergone a reverse procedure to undo the separation and attempts to uncover Lumon’s secrets.
After Petey’s death, Mark’s curiosity rises and he searches for answers. Meanwhile, Innie Mark comes across a contraband book his supervisor accidentally left lying around. The book is a pseudo-philosophical self-help book, which nevertheless elicits a sense of independence and challenge in Mark. For various reasons, each refiner comes to reject their intimate existence, and the group plots to find a way out.
The show has some healthy tendencies. The critiques of corporate culture and compliance are appropriate, and the show convincingly portrays the hostile and violent antagonisms between employers and employees. The close collaboration between the company and the State is mentioned.
The upper-middle-class penchant for inanity and pretentiousness gets a welcome, humorous sting. Mark attends a “no dinner” party with his sister and brother-in-law’s friends. Their guest pontificates on the value of dinner without dinner: “Life is not food. You have life, this complex quality of sensitivity and activity, and then you have food, what is it? Fuel? calories? It’s not the same thing.”
Overall, the characters are well-balanced and portrayed with sensitivity, and the actors are well suited to their roles. As Mark’s menacing boss, Patricia Arquette looks like she could shoot venom from his eyes.
More importantly, the show raises questions about the nature of work and social relationships. But this is precisely where its limits are most felt. The cloud of mystery that shrouds Lumon and the quasi-religious and even Illuminati-like founder Kier is heavy and disorienting. Instead of looking directly or deeply at issues such as the company’s exploitation or political influence, viewers find themselves wandering the strange halls of Lumon.
Even the idea of workers’ consciousness receives some attention. Refiners are coming to recognize that they have power over management. But their awareness is informed primarily by the self-help book which is filled with subjective and often nonsensical musings from its author such as “machines can’t think for themselves. They are made of metal, while man is made of skin”, “a good person will follow the rules, while a great person will follow himself” and “at the center of the industry is the ‘dust'”.
Overall, the show is characterized by an unfortunate dichotomy. It raises a number of relevant social and political questions with a certain degree of seriousness. Obviously, the creators want to make a statement. But they do so with enough ambiguity to indicate that they cannot or will not engage in determined criticism.
This is not particularly surprising given their uncritical and politically dominant outlook. Writer Dan Erickson said his inspiration came from working in a windowless office and wondering what it would be like to turn off your brain for eight hours. He also said his wish for Season 2 would be to cast Barack Obama, who would bring the show “gravitas”! In June, during the ongoing proxy war between the United States and NATO against Russia, director Ben Stiller traveled to Ukraine as a representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency where he was met President Volodymyr Zelensky, whom he congratulated for his “leadership and true determination”.
It’s possible that the serious and critical elements will be further developed in the next season, though given the already obvious limitations, it seems more likely that the series won’t push much beyond its amorphous, unspoken anti-authoritarianism. commitment.