By Ernie Smith

The Cult of Corporatism 👔





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The Cult of Corporatism 👔
By Ernie Smith • Issue #187 • View online
Two hit shows on Apple TV+ have a hell of a lot to say about corporate culture right now, and it feels like just the right time to hear it … even if the source of said commentary is interesting.
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This group of people would make great midcentury IBM employees. (From the Apple TV+ show “Severance.”)
This group of people would make great midcentury IBM employees. (From the Apple TV+ show “Severance.”)
Severance, the Apple TV+ hit that has the backing of Ben Stiller while being unlike anything Stiller has ever done (maybe, vaguely, The Cable Guy?), is one of those shows that will likely go down in history as having a near-perfect first season.
The TV-reviewing machine that is Vulture certainly thinks so—it gave the first two episodes four stars, and the next six five stars, and the level of fawning over this series is well-deserved. (Its season finale premieres tomorrow, and yes, the show is getting a second season.)
Who knows if the show will hold up beyond that? (I mean, just consider the NBC show Heroes, which lots of people liked … until the second season.) But by playing with the constant tension of work-life balance, turning it into almost a source of terror, it makes for both a well-timed show and an extremely nerve-wracking one. For everyone nervous about going back into an office during the pandemic fadeout of 2022, Severance captures your nerves about the endeavor.
Severance, with the workplace comedy veteran Adam Scott at its center, is a reminder that workplace culture used to be a lot more “cult” like. A good example of what I mean is IBM, which Thomas Watson, Sr. created in his image. 
That often led to requirements to always wear dark three-piece suits, for example, but it also required rules that would now be seen as bizarre around alcohol consumption (you could never drink it, even while you weren’t at work), as well as a very stark “THINK” slogan that the company used.
Digging in a little bit further, the examples always threatened to get a little bit weirder. One of the weirdest, highlighted by Ars Technica in 2014, was a songbook titled Songs of the IBM, built at the behest of Thomas Watson Sr. starting in the late 1920s.
Severance plays into this style effectively, maybe not building a songbook (it prefers corporate-curated record collections), but by creating a culture where the cult-like nature of the leadership feels like it permeates everything, even though the employees don’t fully understand it. It’s tense, it’s disorienting, and it feels like it crosses a deep ethical line.
WeCrashed — Official Trailer | Apple TV+
WeCrashed — Official Trailer | Apple TV+
Another Apple TV+ show, one that is significantly lower in quality than the basically perfect Severance, nonetheless does an effective job of showing this same issue, even though its culture is nothing like IBM’s or Lumon Industries’ punishing corporate cultures.
WeCrashed, based on the story of WeWork, is in part a tale based on how Adam Neumann (a Wiseaulike Jared Leto) convinced a company to keep growing even when the evidence was strong that it was likely to fall apart, and fast.
Like Severance, the corporate culture is overwhelming. Everyone there was wearing jeans and T-shirts, but the cult was just as strong as IBM’s dark-suits setup—as highlighted the the comical way that Neumann and his wife Rebekah (gamely played by Anne Hathaway), stroll through the office to the sound of of Katy Perry’s “Roar” in the first episode. Later episodes highlight how some of Rebekah’s more controversial views contrast in light of rank-and-file employees, Adam’s push for employees to play up their engagement levels for an important investor, as well as WeWork’s later out-of-nowhere requirement that the company only serve vegetarian food.
I admit that, as someone who has worked in his share of WeWorks, the cultural play-up is a bit strong in the show, but maybe I never got the full experience!
It’s ironic that, right now, the two shows that have the most to say about crushing corporate culture are distributed by a company that is famous for its own very strong corporate culture. (Maybe they’re trying to tell us something?)
Related Reads:
Wang Laboratories History: Dissecting the Disrupted
Port-A-Punch: IBM's Portable Punch-Card Maker
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If you like this, be sure to check out more of my writing at Tedium: The Dull Side of the Internet.
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Ernie Smith

Hot takes in 30 minutes or less. A newsletter with an unforgiving deadline, written by Ernie Smith—who’s best known for another newsletter, Tedium.

Three times a week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday). Hope I hit the 30-minute deadline. ⏲

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