27 September 2023

It’s no coincidence that workplace tv shows are darker than ever

Start the conversation

Meg Walters* says television is reflections our anxieties about the nature of work.

The second season of Industry (streaming on Binge) begins with words that, for many of us, will be all too familiar.

“You need to come back into work,” Eric tells Harper.

“You’ve been out long enough.”

Throughout the pandemic, Harper has been working from home.

Her face falls.

“You know I’m better placed here,” she stammers.

“It’s better for me to be here.”

But she has been summoned by the office – in this case, the fictional investment bank Pierpoint & Co. – and she cannot ignore its ominous call.

From its first moments, Industry captures an eerie truth about our culture’s changing relationship with work.

As we emerge from two years of lockdowns and flexible working, we are all being flung back into the corporate rat race.

The hustle has us in a tighter chokehold than ever and many of us, it seems, are at breaking point.

Fuelled by widespread exhaustion, dissatisfaction and burnout, people are deserting their jobs en masse.

We are living in an era that has been dubbed the Great Resignation.

Switch on the latest workplace drama and you’ll see that television has begun to reflect our anxieties about the nature of work back at us in increasingly chilling ways.

There was a time when the TV workplace was presented as an annoying necessity, complete with tedious coworkers, fluorescent lighting and drab decor.

Now, the workplace is being portrayed in a much darker light.

With workplace dramas like Succession, The Dropout, Severance and Industry all homing in on the sinister side of work, this year’s TV has brought our deep-seated unease about the direction of corporate culture screaming into the spotlight.

Until recently, the most significant TV workplaces were found in comedies – think The Office, Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine-Nine or even Veep.

These fictional offices were presented with a knowing smile and conspiratorial eye roll.

Yes, work is a slog, these shows seemed to say.

It’s boring and repetitive and filled with annoying people.

But it’s not all bad.

These shows envisaged the workplace as an unlikely second home – a place of unexpected friendships, office romances, stupid pranks and, ultimately, community against the odds.

On the other hand, the notable office dramas of the past few decades found their darkness not in the nature of the office but in the nature of the work itself.

Crime shows and legal dramas had a heyday with successes like Happy Valley, The Fall, Bones, Broadchurch, Law and Order and Suits.

In these workplaces, people confronted the darkest parts of humanity but still found community and camaraderie among their colleagues – and though their work was sinister, they found in it a meaning and a sense of purpose.

The workplace itself was not evil, even if they confronted evil as part of their work.

In more recent shows, the drab but hokey comfort of the workplace has morphed into something much more ominous.

Now, the workplace itself is the source of evil.

Binge’s Succession revolves around the Roy family and their fictional media conglomerate, Waystar Royco.

The company is housed in an aggressively corporate skyscraper that towers above the streets of New York City.

It’s a harsh landscape of glass and steel, peppered with obligatory designer plants, expensive tech and priceless works of art that go unnoticed by the warring executives within.

Similarly, Disney+’s The Dropout sets the scene in the real-life tech startup Theranos, where Elizabeth Holmes infamously conned millions of dollars out of investors with her unfinished and dysfunctional product.

In typical fashion for a millennial startup, Theranos boasts stark white walls, open-plan seating and a lobby adorned with inspirational Yoda quotes in neon.

But the exuberant, we’re-all-in-this-together facade merely hides the disturbing, cult-like inner workings of the company.

Severance sets the scene in a mysterious, forbidding, fictional megacompany named Lumon Industries.

Here, the ‘severance floor’ is home to workers who have willingly undergone an operation to sever their home memories from their work memories, effectively trapping their work selves, or ‘Innies’, at the office.

Severance takes the dark representation of the modern corporate workplace a step further.

The severance floor is in the labyrinthine basement of a giant office building.

Everything is unnatural in this Kafkaesque space, from the whitewashed walls to the sickly green geometric shapes that cover the carpeted floors.

The latest addition to this year’s collection of eerie TV workplaces is the second season of Industry.

Set at the fictional, London-based investment firm Pierpoint & Co., Industry follows a group of young, ambitious investors as they are sucked into the company culture.

Like Succession, this office space is starkly modern and apathetic, featuring a vast, open-plan investment floor filled with large screens, flashing numbers and an oppressive soundscape of endlessly ringing phones and raised voices.

These corporate environments may all look slightly different but they have one thing in common: they’re all distinctly inhuman in their design.

All of these shows, with their glistening, modern halls, starkly lit lobbies, monochromatic meeting rooms and unforgiving, skyscraper views use the office space itself to give physical form to a disturbing phenomenon that happens to those who are caught by the corporate bug.

The soullessness of these office spaces mirrors the emptiness of those who operate within them.

In Succession, the characters become suit and silk-wearing figurines dashing around their pristinely cold, corporate world.

In The Dropout, Holmes buys into the facade she herself created, transforming into an extension of the office space, complete with tech bro black turtleneck and green juice.

In Severance, the ‘severed’ workers become corporate shells who remember nothing but work, leaving them to move emotionlessly around the office, speaking in a jargon-filled script of ‘circling back’ and ‘moving parts’ and ‘reaching out’.

In Industry, the characters throw themselves into their fast-paced environment and quickly lose their identities, numbing themselves with partying, drugs and sex before returning to work the next day.

Spend too long in the corporate prison, television seems to suggest, and you may find that you are drained of your humanity.

There’s a reason why the TV workplace has become so creepy: work today is not only unpleasant, it’s actively dangerous.

We live in a time when the looming threat of losing yourself to work is on everyone’s mind.

At least fifty-three per cent of the Australian workforce has experienced burnout and more than half of all workers around the world are considering leaving their roles.

In short, we are unhappy at work.

“[Workers] want social and interpersonal connections with their colleagues and managers,” found one McKinsey study that looked into the Great Resignation.

“They want to feel a sense of shared identity.

They want meaningful – though not necessarily in-person – interactions, not just transactions.” But many people who have left one role in search of a healthier workplace have been disappointed.

In fact, 72 per cent of young people have felt regret in their new roles.

The real-life workplace may not literally entrap its workers – as it does in a show like Severance, for instance – but the Great Resignation has shown us that leaving one toxic job isn’t enough to escape the figurative corporate prison.

As more and more workers leave one corporate role for another, the terrifying reality is dawning on us: there really is no escaping the reality of contemporary corporate culture.

These days, no matter where you go, your office will likely look and feel like the glass cages of Succession or Industry.

It’s all very bleak – but with mass unrest comes the promise of change.

What we need is a humane working environment that prioritises employee wellbeing rather than churning out propaganda designed to create the illusion of employee wellbeing.

As millions leave their jobs, corporations will be forced to acknowledge that the culture has to change on a structural level, not just with free yoga classes at lunch or the promise of a ‘workplace family’.

The Great Resignation makes one thing very clear: employees aren’t going to remain in their glass cages forever.

*Meg Walters is a freelance journalist and features writer.

This article first appeared at refinery29.com.

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.