It would be easy to dismiss Ricken’s self-help book, The You You Are, in the first season of Severance — it is, in fact, what happens a lot as the copy Ricken (Michael Chernus) leaves on his brother-in-law Mark’s doorstep shuffles from one person to the next. Without even receiving a copy, Mark (Adam Scott) is ready to scoff at Ricken’s attempts to philosophize his way through the world.
But Severance creator Dan Erickson isn’t so sure. To him, the book represented more than a silly joke. And to that end, he never wanted the book to be just a funny voiceover.
“It’s obviously a sort of heightened take on a self-help book,” Erickson tells Polygon in a Zoom interview. “[But] I didn’t want it to be so silly that it felt out of the world. And also with this knowledge that it was going to become a serious plot device later on. So we wanted to write something that, taken out of context, could believably inspire people and had ideas under that bluster that maybe had actual value to them.”
To him, Ricken’s ideas represent an important undercurrent of the show: making the mundane startlingly, stiltedly profound. When Chernus’ buttery voiceover reminds us that “Your so-called boss may own the clock that taunts you from the wall, but, my friends, the hour is yours,” it’s at once corny and provocative. (Erickson’s favorite of Chernus’ delivery is: “Machines are made of metal, but man is made of skin.”)
That delicate balance for a self-help guide set the tone for how Chernus thought of Ricken as a character. The first thing he shot in 2020 was the book cover, which is all flashy, “Dianetics, or like Tony Robbins,” and “vaguely cult-y” with its bright colors. (“Self-help maybe isn’t even right,” he says. “It’s sort of like aggressive help.”)
But the voiceover came later. While the script called for someone to read The You You Are aloud, it wasn’t always clear who that would be. When Chernus finally got tasked with it, he worked hard to dial in to the right balance for Ricken’s tone, calling on his theater and Julliard background to heighten Ricken’s read with a mid-Atlantic accent.
“I know a type, an artistic type, who believes that what they’re doing is the most important thing in the world, and [has] this conviction that the stakes are so high,” Chernus says. “There’s something — of course — pretentious and grandiose about that. But there’s also something incredible about someone just being so dialed in to their vision and their point of view about the world.”
In short: He didn’t feel a need to make fun of the guy. Instead, he saw Ricken’s grandeur as fitting in with the same sort of formalism as Irving or Cobell. And like so many other puzzle pieces in Severance, The You You Are finds an audience among the innies, dazzled by his insight. (His favorite line from the book was “At the center of industry is dust.”)
To Erickson, it’s a delicious irony that came about in the writer’s room: “What if the person that outtie Mark disdained more than anybody ended up being the father of the revolution on the inside?” But ultimately, what he and Chernus like most is that the book reached the people it needed to.
“There’s a commentary on how context influences what’s good art, or good writing, or good media,” Chernus says, citing media he consumed as a college freshman trying to read auras or an adult trying to get through the pandemic. “I agree that it’s the sort of stuff that sounds profound, but actually isn’t. But you can’t fully dismiss it if it’s doing something for the innies. If it’s doing something for them, who are we to say it’s objectively bad?”
Perhaps the most surprising person it reached was Milchick (Tramell Tillman), the supervisor on the severed floor whose devotion presents as a middle management enforcer. A stickler for the rules, even Milchick doesn’t end up reporting the copy of The You You Are; instead he sits and reads it.
When asked what that interest means for Milchick’s role in season 2, Erickson deflects, noting he’s seen people interpret his reading as either genuine interest or a nice chuckle.
“I guess maybe that paradox sums it up pretty well,” Erickson says. After all, haven’t we all received advice before we were able to really hear it?