These three shows are from different franchises, different genres, even different streaming services, but you know what they all have in common? DARKNESS. Nothing light or fluffy here, no sir. From a galaxy far, far away to turn-of-the-century* New Orleans to a corporate office near you, these shows make their home in the shadows. But are they hard-hitting and mature, or do we have a set of pizza cutters on our hands: all edge, no point? Obviously, the only way to answer that is by ranking their attachment, novelty, tension, and satisfaction on a scale from 1 to 10!
Spoiler Notice: the first seasons of Severance, Andor, and Interview with the Vampire
To the shock and horror of many, there are millions of people alive today who have no idea what it was like to watch the first season of Lost. Fortunately, any of them who are subscribed to Apple TV can get a pretty good idea by loading up Severance.
In this show, the mysterious and sinister Lumon Industries has a process fittingly called “severance,” where certain employees have their memories broken in two. Their “outie” continues life as normal, except they don’t remember what they do at work. Meanwhile, their “innie” has no memories except for what they do at work, effectively creating a second person whose only experience is
hell office culture. It’s a weird show, for both good and ill.
Mark, Helly, Dylan, and Irving, our four innie protagonists, all have an extremely sympathetic problem: they’re effectively stuck at work forever. Their bodies leave at the end of the day, but they only remember the hours spent in Lumon’s basement. Even if Lumon weren’t a creepy and sadistic company, that would be enough to immediately get you on their side.
They’re also a pretty fun group, each with their distinct idiosyncrasies. As the new hire, Helly is the audience-insert character, baffled and enraged that anyone would make a system like this. Mark is taking a crash course in leadership after his old boss’s sudden departure. Irving devotes himself to the company’s weird values system, and Dylan tries to earn as many productivity rewards as possible.
Did I mention they have character arcs? Mostly. Mark grows into a real leader while Dylan eventually learns to value his fellow innies more than he values earning a waffle party. Irving has a very cute romance with the head of another department, and Helly… Well, she also has a romance, with Mark specifically, but it’s just not as well developed as Irving’s. Instead, her arc is first wanting to escape really bad, then less bad, then really wanting to again, for reasons.
These four start the show off on the right foot, but unfortunately we only spend about half the runtime with them. The rest is divided between Outie Mark, the bad guys, and Mark’s sister, for some reason. Outie Mark is just not very interesting. He’s mourning his departed wife, which is worth some sympathy, but it’s nothing compared to the plight of Innie Mark. And despite occasional dialogue about how the two are emotionally linked, they don’t seem to be. The only thing Outie Mark really brings to the show is occasional jokes at the expense of his brother-in-law, TV’s most insufferable self-help guru.
Meanwhile, the show’s villains get a surprising amount of screen time despite rarely doing anything. They’re the worst kind of bad guy too: huge jerks, but without the power to back their assholery up. I think their screen time is meant to give us context for the moment where one of them gets fired, but it’s hard to care. Mark’s sister is even weirder. She’s several degrees removed from the throughline, but still gets an entire subplot about having a baby. I don’t get it. I’m also confused by how she’s a completely normal person, but her husband and all her friends are the weirdest group of pseudo-intellectual snobs you’ve ever met. Seems like she’d have snapped and killed someone by now.
These less-than-stellar characters don’t ruin the show’s attachment by any means, but they certainly aren’t doing it any favors.
Final Score: 6
Severance’s main draw is obviously its memory-splitting premise. You can tell because that’s also the title! And the severance procedure does indeed deliver a lot of novelty. While the four innie main characters seem to have similar starting personalities to their outies, only having memories of work at Lumon quickly makes them eccentric. That’s why Helly feels the most like a normal person, because she hasn’t been there very long.
With no memories of the outside world, our heroes are often fascinated by any scraps they come across. Most notably, they get hold of a book written by the previously mentioned self-help guru, which is exactly as trite and borderline racist as you’d expect. But for the innies, it helps them develop a sense of self-worth because they have no other source of affirmation. Genuinely cool.
The Lumon building is also a strong source of novelty, on account of being so weird and sinister. The innies don’t have a map, so everything but the corridors around their office is a mystery. The more we learn about Lumon, the stranger it gets, like how the entire company is also a cult to its founder from the 1800s, the end-of-quarter waffle party involves BDSM, and there’s a room full of baby goats. Why? Only season two knows. Hopefully.
The main weakness in Severance’s novelty is that the setting elements don’t work well together. It’s not until the final two episodes that the story really does anything interesting with the fact that each character is actually two people. Before then, the premise is used almost entirely as a justification for why the main characters can’t ever leave the office. We’re told that people like Mark get severed to help them deal with emotional trauma, but it’s unclear how that’s supposed to work, and it certainly doesn’t appear to help.
At the same time, severance seems to just be Lumon’s latest fad, rather than a core part of its spooky nature. Most of what we find out has nothing to do with splitting people’s memories, nor do we ever get a hint about why that process was instituted in the first place. Instead, it feels like the main story is about a spooky company and there’s a bit of severance on the side. Also, we’ve now encountered so many weird aspects of Lumon that it’s hard to believe there will be a satisfactory explanation for all of them, but that’s a problem for the future.
Final Score: 8
At first, the innie storyline is very tense. This company is super weird, and they’re making the protagonists arrange spooky numbers without explanation. If anyone steps out of line, they’re sent to the foreboding “break room.” Plus, everything is shot to look like an endless maze. Top-notch presentation.
But as the story progresses, most of that tension loses its teeth. Despite having seemingly endless resources, Lumon is powerless to prevent the characters from exploring wherever they want or from breaking any other rule. The vaunted break room turns out to be little more than a chamber of bad vibes that our heroes immediately recover from. Lumon eventually installs locked doors to prevent exploring, but our heroes immediately circumvent them. The only limiting factor is whether the characters feel like looking around or not.
Meanwhile, Outie Mark’s story is largely devoid of tension from the start. He briefly makes contact with a colleague who’s trying to take Lumon down, but then that story is paused for several episodes so Mark can go on a series of awkward dates. Also, so his sister can have a baby. I still don’t understand why so much of the show is devoted to a side character’s pregnancy!
It’s not until the season finale that tension finally picks up again, as the innies launch a plan to activate themselves on the outside. What they think will happen then is super vague, but, whatever, at least they’re trying to do something that could actually fail! All it would take is a supervisor walking into the control room at the wrong moment and all is lost. Better late than never, but still very late.
Final Score: 5
This is where Severance has the most trouble, as very few of the episodes ever amount to anything. The innies explore, but it doesn’t change their situation. Helly makes escape attempt after escape attempt, but always ends up right where she started. Even an attempted suicide results in approximately zero changes. The only satisfaction we get is when the four characters make occasional progress on their character arcs, which simply isn’t enough to sustain a premise like this.
Outie Mark’s story is, if anything, even worse. After the anti-Lumon NPC dies, Mark spends three entire episodes in possession of a phone that would advance the plot if he just answered it, but he doesn’t because that wouldn’t be artistic enough, I guess. Once he finally does, he meets another anti-Lumon NPC who promises more information at a later date, but first she has to murder a Lumon employee who was snooping on her.
At this point, the most in-character thing for Mark to do would be to run away and call the police. Remember, this is Outie Mark: he doesn’t remember any of Lumon’s evil deeds firsthand; he’s just been told about them by people he has no reason to trust. But if he did run away from the murderer, the plot would move forward even slower, so I was actually glad when he didn’t! It’s not a good sign when the show has me actively cheering for contrivances just so something will happen.
Just like with tension, things finally pick up in the finale. Mostly. Kinda. Innie Mark, Innie Helly, and Innie Irving all activate outside of work, while Innie Dylan stays behind in the control room to keep them activated.
- Irving goes to see his love interest who recently quit, which is sweet, but feels like a distraction from their stated goal of trying to damage Lumon. Plus, we don’t even see any resolution because his time runs out early!
- Mark manages to tell his sister about how horrible Lumon is, which is better than nothing, but not exactly season finale material. It’s basically a promise that she’ll do something important next season, but the show doesn’t have great credit with this character.
- Helly’s section is by far the best. She’s at a big reception where politicians and business leaders are expecting to hear a speech about how great severance is, so she has a real opportunity. It’s super satisfying when Helly gets on stage and tells everyone what life is really like for her, even though we don’t know what effect she has. This isn’t enough to make up for previous frustrations, but it’s a high point to end the season.
Final Score: 5
Finally, a Star Wars show that answers the burning question we’ve all been asking: was Cassian lying when he said “I’ve been in this fight since I was six years old” back in Rogue One? Apparently, yes, he was a lying liar-pants. He’d only joined the rebellion a few years earlier.*
Oh, and I guess if that wasn’t something you’ve been dying to know, then Andor is a Star Wars show that takes a long look at the mechanics of authoritarianism while still being mostly neutral in terms of ideology.* That way, the Empire can represent any type of oppressive system you don’t like, which has always been a big draw for Star Wars. Still, I’ll take it if the show inspires even one person to realize how bad the US prison crisis is.
At first, I wasn’t optimistic about Andor’s chances in this category. As a protagonist, Cassian is just okay. He’s on the arc of a loner who must learn to be part of something bigger than himself, e.g. the Rebellion. You might recognize this arc because Star Wars uses it a lot. I’m not convinced they know how to do any other kind for non-Jedi characters.
Cassian doesn’t really stand out in this role, and most of the Ferrix NPCs don’t make much of an initial impression either. Except B2EMO. B2EMO is love, B2EMO is life. But then something weird happened: I started getting attached to Ferrix itself rather than any of the individuals in it. It was probably the way everyone does a percussive jam session to warn of the cops that solidified my feelings.
From there, Andor also introduces a bunch of individuals who are very easy to care about. Just about everyone on Cassian’s heist team counts, whether it’s Vel and Cinta with their strained romance, Gorn with his guilt over serving the Empire, or Karis with his manifesto. And the prison episodes are just spectacular for building strong attachment to a large number of characters in such a short time. Heck, Andor even builds attachment to villains like Dedra as she breaks the Imperial Security Bureau’s glass ceiling.
Mon Mothma is easily my favorite character, which won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me.* But even for people who don’t have my specific tastes, it’s fun to watch her operate under the Empire’s nose, funneling money to the rebels even as she has dinner with hard-core imperialists.
And, of course, there’s Luthen, the spyfather. Honestly, the shift in demeanor between rebel operative and antiques dealer is enough to sell this character. Actor Stellan Skarsgård goes above and beyond with this one. Luthen’s only problem is that he’s occasionally too candied, like when he’s suddenly an ace pilot whose ship has anti-TIE lightsabers on it. If any of the female characters were flying that ship, we’d be up to our necks in think pieces and video essays calling it the MarySueMobile. So I can’t give Andor a perfect score in this category, but damn is it close.
Final Score: 9
There’s a lot of online chatter about how Andor is super dark, just the darkest, the most dark Star Wars. Ordinarily, that would be worth a fair amount of novelty, but it isn’t really true. Star Wars has been getting steadily darker and more grounded for years now, starting with Rogue One and proceeding through The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi. We’ve seen how the little people live and how the Empire’s repression affects people not named Skywalker.
Andor is the next step in that process, but it’s not a major departure from what came before. Cassian kills a corporate cop in cold blood, which is pretty dark, but he kills his own contact in cold blood back in Rogue One. That’s just his MO. The main difference between Andor and previous Star Wars entries is that it’s grimier rather than darker. Nothing is clean in this world except the inside of a brutal Imperial prison. Which is brilliant, now that I think about it.
However, a side effect of all this griminess is that we’ve lost a lot of what gives Star Wars novelty in the first place. Most notably, aliens. Outside of a few background shots and one moment where Cassian catches a ride, everyone we see in Andor is human. I’m guessing the showrunner believed that aliens were too silly for Andor’s serious themes. I would disagree, but regardless, the lack of scifi creatures makes the world less distinct.*
There are also a few places where the show gets a little too devoted to making the rebels seem like a real insurgency, particularly shots where rebel fighters appear to be holding real-world Kalashnikov rifles. Of course, most Star Wars blasters are based on real guns, but this time they forgot to add any scifi bits, so it just looks wrong.
That’s not to say there’s no novelty to be had. We get brief glimpses of more complicated rebel politics when Saw Gererra lists off a bunch of different factions, which is something I hope the next season explores in more detail. Some of the space visuals are truly gorgeous, and, best of all, there’s no Tatooine. Star Wars needs to take a break from Tatooine for at least a few more years.
Final Score: 5
There’s one place where Andor does stand out from previous Star Wars shows: the heroes are at such a disadvantage that it can afford to show the villains messing up without ruining tension. We first see this with Syril and his corporate goons, who stoke anti-Imperial anger through their clumsy use of force. Meanwhile, Dedra has to fight Imperial bureaucracy before she can even think about fighting the rebels, and increasingly repressive policies provoke the very rebellion they were intended to prevent.
This is all extremely realistic. In real life, authoritarian regimes often fall because of their own overreach, but this is hard to portray in fiction. Fictional villains lose their menace if they run around scoring own goals, so writers are in a bind. Andor threads the needle because the Empire is so powerful and vast that it can afford to mess up a few times before the rebels have reason to celebrate.
However, there are still a few places where this tension falters, mainly because the pacing isn’t as good as it could be. The first three episodes in particular could easily be condensed into two, because we do not need that much exploration of Cassian’s backstory. If it’s important next season, we can get to it then. In this season, it’s a waste of time. We also spend way too much time following Syril around after he initially fails to catch Cassian. Bad guys matter when they’re doing things that affect our heroes, not when they’re sadly eating space-cheerios.
Ironically, it also reduces tension when Dedra breaks out the magic torture machine. Normally, extracting information from captive rebels would make her more threatening, but the show is so grounded that it’s just silly for the Empire to employ a machine powered by dying orphans’ screams. Everything feels a little less real during those moments.
Final Score: 8
Andor has major ups and downs when it comes to satisfaction. The immediate problem is that the show is divided into a series of two- or three-episode arcs, and it really seems like each of those arcs would work better as a single movie than multiple episodes. As is, most episodes don’t have anything resembling a real ending. Instead, the episode just stops at an arbitrary point until you can watch the next one. This might not be a huge problem if you have time to watch an entire arc at once, but it’s a major pain when there’s a week between each episode.
Balancing that out, the conclusion of each arc is spectacular. The heist story ends in a gorgeous light show, but that’s just an appetizer compared to the prison break. It’s shocking to see one of America’s biggest entertainment franchises portray convicts with unqualified compassion and humanity. The phrase “one way out” will give me chills for a long time. Well done to everyone involved.
Then we have the epic funeral finale. I did not expect a big-budget Star Wars show to conclude with a funeral, but here we are. Once again, it is very good. We see a community rally together against their occupiers, driven on by the parting words of their fallen. The music of Ferrix is haunting, and it makes the perfect soundtrack for an uprising.
Unfortunately, I do have to dock a few points from this fantastic climax because Cassian is barely in it. You remember Cassian? He’s theoretically our main character. In the previous arcs, he’s played a major role alongside other important characters, but this time he’s just doing his own thing while the insurrection takes shape nearby. He eventually joins the Rebellion, which is nice, but not really what I’m paying attention to anymore.
Final Score: 7
Interview With the Vampire
I’ll be honest up front: I love this show so much that I’m not sure how objective my scores will be. This is the kind of adaptation that only happens once in a very long while. It’s in conversation with both the original book and the 1994 movie, examining, commenting on, and subverting everything I found frustrating about the story before. I’ve studied Anne Rice’s ’70s vampire tale quite a bit to understand its influence on urban fantasy in the present, so it’s possible that this commentary resonates with me more than it would with the average viewer.
The major problem for Interview is that it’s tangled up with yet another streaming service no one asked for. Now AMC wants a subscription too? Sure, absolutely. It’s not like rapid multiplication of services is steadily draining demand dry in the perfect metaphor for a show about vampires!
What can I say about these characters other than I love them? The writers and actors are both doing an amazing job, so I can end the section, right? Okay, fine.
In the book, Lestat is an abusive asshole. He’s supposed to fascinate Louis, but it’s never convincing because he’s so obnoxious from the start. In the movie, he’s a dark tempter. Louis is believably fascinated, but then Lestat is no longer abusive, so a chunk of the plot doesn’t work. In this show, Lestat is both! Specifically, he seamlessly transitions from tempter to abuser. He first appears suave and seductive, promising to transform Louis’s life. He keeps that promise, but gradually turns more and more controlling. It’s horrifying and fascinating at the same time.
I also love this version of Louis. For one thing, he’s not a slave owner anymore. Instead, he’s a Black businessman in early 1900s America. He’s much more sympathetic than in the books, but you can see the ruthless streak he’s needed to survive in a world set against him. Plus, he doesn’t spend the whole time sanctimoniously whining! Instead, the show uses his angst to make him even more compelling as he struggles to do the right thing.
Claudia is a little odd at first, as the writers seem a bit confused on the topic of her age. A friend commented that she’s stated to be 14, looks like she’s 19, and talks like she’s 7. I must admit that’s accurate, but once a few decades have gone by in-character, that initial confusion is smoothed over. From there, she becomes a glorious mastermind, to the point that I’m really hoping season two will break from the book and let her live.
The family drama between these three is spectacular. Their emotions are so powerful that it’s easy to ignore all the murders they do. They love and hate, and never in half measures. The writing is so good that I’m hard-pressed to explain how or why it works.
But wait, there’s more! Shattering my expectations, Daniel the reporter is more than the clumsy framing device we’ve seen before. This time, he’s sharp-witted and sassy, constantly poking holes in Louis’s story, challenging the vampire to explain himself. Can you see why this character would appeal to me, someone who analyzes stories for a living?
Final Score: 10
Interview is one of those foundational stories that’s been so influential, it’s difficult for adaptations to show us anything new. Every major aspect of the original book has been emulated, remixed, and subverted by successive generations of vampire fiction. It’s like how if you showed The Matrix to someone who’d never heard of it, they’d likely think it was derivative of more recent action movies.
Despite this hurdle, the new show doesn’t rest on its laurels. Changing the time period from the late 1700s to early 1900s allows for an entirely new era of history to explore, particularly African American history. I hope that one day people don’t have to learn about that subject from popular TV shows, because it’s properly taught in school instead, but Interview isn’t a bad teacher until then.
But the main source of novelty is pitching the show as a second interview. You see, Louis already talked to Daniel back in the ’70s, which is implied to be where he conveyed events as stated in the book. But now it’s 2022, and he’s in a much better place, so he can tell what really happened. This gives the show a sense of meta-continuity that would be hard to replicate any other way.
That said, most of the vampire content is stuff you’ve seen before, including even the canonical queerness. Come to think of it, it’s pretty cool that queer vampires are now common enough not to be a source of novelty. Not that queer rep is perfect in the genre, but it’s a good sign nonetheless.
Final Score: 6
The four ANTS are often connected, especially tension and attachment. To be worried something bad will happen to the protagonists, you have to care about the protagonists first. Otherwise, none of the threats matter.
These characters are a master class in making you care about them, which boosts tension up through the roof. First, Louis has to deal with regular old human racism. Then, there’s a lot of inner tension as he resists his vampiric desire to feed on humans, not to mention the constant threat of being discovered.
Tension ramps up as Lestat turns increasingly hostile, and even though this is a story about supernatural monsters, the fear is very personal. Lestat is the rare kind of villain where random acts of cruelty make him more threatening rather than less, because he has Louis and Claudia completely in his power.
Even the framing device has tension, though it’s so integrated with the rest of the story that I’m not sure “framing device” is the right term anymore. We want Daniel to find out what Louis is concealing about the past, giving each scene a compelling conflict. Nor can we be sure that Daniel is entirely safe himself. Louis says he only drinks from willing humans now, but the vampiric hunger is clearly still there, bubbling beneath the surface.
Sadly, there is one significant drop in tension when Claudia goes off on her own for a while. Claudia is a great character, but she’s just not as compelling on her own as she is when she’s part of the vampiric family drama.
Final Score: 9
I love Interview for a lot of reasons, and one of them is how it shows that you can have amazing multi-episode arcs while also giving each episode a strong ending. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, Andor!
For example, the early episodes form an arc about Louis adapting to being a vampire. This is a huge part of his character, so it’s good that they didn’t rush. But these writers understand fractal plotting, so each episode has a strong conclusion as well.
- Episode one’s climax is the actual vampiric transformation.
- Episode two ends with Louis vowing to only drink animal blood.
- Episode three’s climax is Louis snapping and using his powers against a racist white guy.
Each of these endings moves the bigger arc closer to a conclusion while also giving viewers a feeling of accomplishment. Not only is this highly entertaining, but it’s also important for getting people to come back and watch another episode. If too much time passes and a story can only promise satisfaction at a later date, people will move on.
The season finale is, you’ll no doubt be shocked to hear, a masterpiece. This is Louis and Claudia’s escape from Lestat, and I have never found myself cheering so hard for a pair of mass murderers to succeed. Claudia is the mastermind of the plan, and the way she tricks Lestat is fantastic just on its own. He’s so powerful, but she brings him low through wit and cunning. I love her for it.
Perhaps even better is Louis’s emotional conflict. By this point, he’s recognized that Lestat is abusive and will never willingly let him leave. But Louis still harbors doomed hopes that maybe it’ll work out, even as he and Claudia plan to make Lestat normal dead instead of undead. The conclusion of his character arc is powerful and moving.
Plus, the ending has a few bonuses. After cutting Lestat’s throat, Louis and Claudia dump his body in the landfill. At first, I thought this was a plot hole, since they would know he could regenerate. But in the future, Daniel calls out the discrepancy, forcing Louis to admit that he let Lestat live on purpose. I also guessed who Arman was ahead of time, which filled me with more glee than I expected. I could not be more excited for season two!
Final Score: 10
Our final scores of the evening are: 24 for Severance, 29 for Andor, and 35 for Interview with the Vampire. Wow, that’s the highest-scoring group yet! All of these shows are worth a watch, if you find yourself subscribed to their respective streaming services. Severance has cool ideas that may or may not pan out, while Andor is a powerful drama that fleshes out the Star Wars universe.
Interview is in a league of its own though. Not only is it the highest score I’ve given out, it’s also the first story I’ve encountered that rates a 10 in two different categories. I can see why AMC is using it to launch a new streaming service. I don’t think that strategy will work, given how saturated the market already is, but at least we’ll have some great TV in the meantime!
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