The book glows like an orange beacon in a sea of blue office chairs, its cover a cross between Eckhart Tolle‘s To New Earth and the poster for The 40-Year-Old Virgin. From the front of The You You Are, “a spiritual biography of you,” author Dr. Ricken Lazlo Hale, PhD, peers earnestly, sporting a maroon turtleneck and feathered hair—Steve Jobs in bard cosplay. “What does ‘comradery’ mean?” asks one typically absurd page. “Most linguists agree it comes from the Latin ‘camera,’ which means ‘a device used to take a photograph.’ And of course, the best photographs are not of individuals, but of groups of happy friends, who love each other deeply.” This book is contraband. In the world of Apple TV+’s hit series severity, in which a chip can be placed in your brain to separate your work life from your personal life, there are outies who live a normal existence and innies who live an entirely corporate one. The only book that should be available within Lumon Industries’ walls is the one written by founder Kier Eagan, which dates back to the 19th century, a handbook/bible in which every action is mapped out to ensure the innies’ conformity.
Which is why Mark (adam scott) and his two colleagues handle this new book like a bomb, considering it from a safe distance, with the most devout of the three (John Turturro) moved to quote Eagan with characteristic born-again reverence: “Be content in my words, and dally not in the scholastic pursuits of lesser men.” But The You You Are is inscribed specifically to Mark (“intrepid cartographer of the mind”). And as the one to whom it is addressed, he can’t not answer its call. So he reads it alone. And he has an unsurprising epiphany–how could he not when he’s been so successfully indoctrinated for so long? “Your job needs you,” this new book alerts him, “not the other way around.” Like a teenage boy who has stumbled upon Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Mark is galvanized. So are his fellow office workers of him, particularly Dylan (Zach Cherry), who has also been reading the book in private. “Our job is to taste free air,” Mark reads aloud. “Your so-called boss may own the clock that taunts you from the wall, but, my friends”—and here, Dylan joins in—“the hour is yours.”
The You You Are is the driving force behind severity, which just concluded its first season to such wall-to-wall critical and fan acclaim that a second season has already been announced. The nine-episode series is as thrilling, dramatic, and dark as it can be ridiculous, and The You You Are is the motor of the worker uprising at its core. “Ben and I talk all the time about this,” says creator Dan Erikson, referring to executive producer and director Ben Stiller. “That’s one of our favorite elements of the whole show. Like, it’s just so delicious.”
severity came out of a pilot Erickson submitted to Stiller’s production company (Red Hour Films) as a writing sample, but the idea that The You You Are would end up in the hands of the innies was not part of the original script—it came out of the writers room. However, Mark’s brother-in-law, Ricken (played by veteran stage actor michael chernus), was there from the beginning, always as a thorn in Mark’s side. Ricken’s the author of several books—The You You Are follows the equally ingeniously named My Own Petard and The Life of an American Gadfly—a pompous enunciator who speaks in ye olde style. He is the kind of guy who weaves his own pajamas and partakes of the neti pot. “Part of it was just outlining the horribleness and the depressing nature of Mark’s life from him,” Erickson tells me, “how his only real social interactions from him are with these people that he really does n’t connect with at all.” But it was the particular loathing Mark had for Ricken—which Mark was primed for in the wake of his wife Gemma’s recent death de ella—that unlocked the story. “It’s like, Oh, my God, innie Mark has to somehow be exposed to his words from him and be totally inspired by him,” says Erickson. “What would piss off outie Mark more than that?” The story line also gave Ricken the depth Mark seemed incapable of seeing in him. “Once that idea was there, it was like, Well, let’s make Ricken the father of the revolution,” Erickson explains. “Let’s basically make Ricken’s book the manifesto for this workers revolution.”
Ricken and Lumon founder Eagan were always intended to be “different sides of the same coin,” Erickson adds: “They’re gussying up these almost commonsense ideas to make it sound like something more profound than is actually there.” The difference, though, is that Ricken wants to bring comfort, while Eagan wants to bring compliance. Because of that, their two books become opposing forces within the office and the lives of the innies. “It’s funny because we’re seeing this silly self-help book go up against this gross corporate document, and they’re [both] vying for supremacy in the minds and hearts of the workers,” Erickson says. “It just becomes: Which ideology is going to win out?”
Because severity required a delicate tonal balance, Ricken couldn’t be over the top. Erickson notes that even though he has met people like him, on the page even real people can read as excessive. But having worked in theater for years, Chernus knew his character well. “I have so many friends—some of them are dear friends—who are pretentious,” he says with a laugh. He was fueled by the actors playing Ricken’s friends, who first appeared at a food-free dinner party, among them Grace Rex as dotty bird owner Rebeck (not a) and Donald Webber Jr. as eager-to-please Patton. “You felt that artistic community sort of thing from the get-go,” Chernus says. “We were always joking about the no-dinner dinner party—feasting on ideas, having an appetite for discourse.”
Chernus isn’t certain he didn’t slip into parody occasionally; it was just too tempting. “It’s a fine line between what’s too much and what’s just right with him,” he says. But while Ricken does serve as a “little release valve” for the pathos-laden severity, he can’t be reduced to comic relief. Chernus tried to home in on Ricken’s humanity, to “maybe understand what some of the character’s wound is.” He points to the scene that takes place on the night of his wife from him Devon’s (Jen Tullock) work. While she is experiencing contractions, her husband de ella is holding on to her for dear life, crying as though he is in labor himself (this is one of Erickson’s favorite moments in the show). “I just don’t want to be like my father,” Ricken laments, before straightening up the moment Mark arrives. If you aren’t paying attention, the line is easy to miss, but it’s essential to understanding the author of The You You Are. As Chernus explains, “I think he’s trying to fill a pretty big hole in himself with all of this.”