'Devs': TV Review

Casts a unique spell, right up to an ending that's a little too on-the-nose.
3/5/2020

Alex Garland's particular breed of futuristic paranoia gets a fitting small-screen transfer in an FX/Hulu limited series about technology and its dehumanizing and humanizing effects.

Most of our collective paranoia, when it comes to technology usurping our free will and threatening to conquer us all, focuses on the all-too-concrete: The robotics firm training its machines to do parkour, the latest data breach handing our most sensitive information to a foreign power, the glowing orb in our living room listening to every word we say.

Alex Garland likes to couch his own fears in broader terms. The gizmos and doodads probably scare him, but he's more worried about the people behind them, the so-called geniuses and innovators grasping to steal more than mere fire from the Gods.

It's the difference between viewing technology as an existential threat literally (as in: we'll be obliterated by that which we create) and an existential threat philosophically (as in: technology will usurp our sense of humanity and divinity, leaving us purposeless).

Describing FX on Hulu's eight-part limited series Devs in concrete terms borders on pointless, but it's wholly sufficient, at least for those in the know, to say that it is incredibly Alex Garland-esque — appropriate given that he wrote and directed the entirety. It's haunting and hypnotic, a show of marrow-seeping mood and a unity of vision that carries through every frame. If it also turns a corner from entrancingly opaque to a bit on-the-nose by the end, for fans of Garland's Ex Machina and Annihilation, chances are that you'll be too absorbed to be bothered.

To take a stab at a preliminary summary: Devs is the story of Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), a software engineer working for Amaya, a cutting-edge Bay Area tech company owned by Forest (Nick Offerman, not coincidentally modeling his look after a middle-aged Jesus). I'd say that Forest is enigmatic, but Lily is also enigmatic, as is nearly every figure working at Amaya, including Forest's brilliant lieutenant Katie (Alison Pill), his chief of security (Zach Grenier) and the half-dozen other figures we meet in what is a very claustrophobic universe.

The plot is instigated when Lily's enigmatic boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) gets a coveted position in Amaya's remote Devs division, an isolated company offshoot populated only by the best and brightest and those tied to the strictest of NDAs. When something bad happens to Sergei, Lily begins an investigation into Devs and the geniuses working there. But Devs is not something you want to get nosy about.

The enticing description for Devs would be something like techno-noir, with Lily as a calculating gumshoe working outside of the law to get answers about Sergei, while stop-at-nothing forces have to decide if she's an obstacle to be neutralized. It all takes place against the San Francisco backdrop mined by everything from The Maltese Falcon to Vertigo to the most recent season of The OA, a show whose fandom just might be able to scratch some inscrutable itches here.

The catch is that, as a crime story, the reach of Devs is limited (as is the entire series, which ends with no need for future adventures in this narrative universe). Every time you think the series might be about to open up into a juicy saga of murder and perhaps espionage, it turns in on itself and its primary question shifts from "What was up with Sergei?" to "What is Devs and who are the chosen few behind it?" Are Forest and his team achieving something unique and to what end? Or is the mission of Devs just a distillation of every real or fictionalized exploration of the horizon?

Whether Devs makes tangible sense ceases to matter as long as Garland and his collaborators have you under their spell. Hypnotism is particularly the order of the day in the extra-long pilot, which introduces many of cinematographer Rob Hardy's most evocative images, from the rippling gold cube that is the Devs workspace — production designer Mark Digby and set decorator Michelle Day create a space that's half austere, half Gustav Klimt — to the colossal statue of a captivated girl, like Bob's Big Boy, only heartbreaking, that towers above the treetops. Andrew Whitehurst's visual effects, as they did in Garland's features, hide in plain sight, illustrating the slightly futuristic advancement of the world and introducing a lovely ongoing thematic conceit in an explanatory fifth episode that was a highlight.

It's all wrapped up in a musical composition — the duo know as The Insects, with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow — that's sometimes sumptuous and sometimes absorbed in the almost industrial ambience of the soundscape. It's all pure Garland and a reminder that auteurism is a team sport.

Garland doesn't exactly use his actors as props, but in an ensemble this small every role has been cast with a very specific purpose. A Garland regular, Mizuno rarely projects like an actress, but she feels natural and unguarded in a show that's all about constructing walls around its mechanics. Garland often trains the camera on Mizuno's profile, especially when she's paired in long conversations with Pill, who's proving this spring — here and in Picard — that she's aces at delivering deceptively affectless monologuing. Grenier and Jin Ha, as Lily's cyber-security ex, offer contrasting shades of stillness, one menacing and one benign. Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson make up another dyad, embodying youth and wisdom, respectively, as the show's most likable pair.

Then there's Offerman, playing almost without a whiff of humor and progressively exposing his character's torment in a way that exhibits his barely tapped versatility (and should make you feel uncomfortable the next time you hear a seemingly awkward Silicon Valley billionaire talking in platitudes).

Garland, for all his frequent brilliance, isn't above platitudes of his own. I thought Devs peaked in the sixth and seventh episodes before a finale that caves to pressure to go from Big Questions to Semi-Satisfying Answers; there's an obviousness to some of the conclusiveness — we may need a moratorium on characters referencing Yeats' "The Second Coming" — that comes across as cheap if not disappointing, though more in subsequent reflection than in the journey.

It's possible that what I needed was less and not more — for Garland to be willing to force viewers to accept the unknowable in a show about characters refusing to do just that.

Cast: Sonya Mizuno, Nick Offerman, Jin Ha, Zach Grenier, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Alison Pill

Creator/writer/director: Alex Garland

Episodes premiere Thursdays on FX on Hulu starting March 5.