devs review

When approaching Devs, there’s one rule worth keeping in mind: Pay attention. That may seem like a no-brainer, but more often than not these days, TV viewers tend to only half-watch shows – one eye on the TV, the other on the phone for some live-tweeting. You can certainly try to watch Devs this way, but if you, do be warned: You’ll get lost in the woods, wandering around aimlessly in a futile search for familiar landmarks that never present themselves. Devs is dense – a layered, near-hypnotic saga that pulls you further and further down a virtual rabbit hole into dark wonderlands.

Written and directed from beginning to end by Alex Garland (Ex MachinaAnnihilation), Devs isn’t what you’d call a Mystery Box show, but it is plenty mysterious. Garland is an artist who specializes in challenging science fiction – the type where not everything makes sense, and where easy answers don’t always present themselves. In many ways, Garland is a creator with an almost staggering amount of faith in the viewer – he’s not afraid to let us, the audience, try to figure things out on our own. At the same, Garland also understands that there are some things that are just going to be beyond our understanding – and that’s the point. Devs is a show dealing at times with the seemingly impossible – it only makes sense that it would go in directions some are bound to find confusing and unfamiliar.

Software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) works at Amaya, a massive quantum computing company overseen by CEO Forest (Nick Offerman). There are many things going on at Amaya, but the one department everyone is keenly aware of is Devs. Everyone assumes its a code-name for “development”, but whatever goes on in Devs is super top secret. So when Lily’s boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), who also works at Amaya, is recruited to join Devs, it’s kind of a big deal. But what should be cause for celebration turns into potential tragedy when Sergei disappears. Lily suspects foul play and launches her own amateur investigation, drawing in her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) for back-up.

What happened to Sergei? Are Forest and the Devs team up to something? And just what the hell goes on in the huge, secluded Devs building – a building that comes with a lead Faraday shield, a 13-yard-thick concrete shell, a gold mesh, and an eight-yard unbroken vacuum seal. Devs has answers for these questions, and more, but Garland is not shy about making us wait for it all to come together. One of the most striking elements of Devs is how eerily quiet the show can be – there are long, silent stretches where characters are working things over in their minds, and Garland allows these moments to unroll organically. It doesn’t exactly make for the most action-packed TV watching, but it’s easy to get swept up in it all. 

While Lily is our entry point into the show, Devs devotes plenty of time to those around her. Offerman’s Forest is more or less a co-lead character here, and the actor, sporting long hair, red-rimmed eyes, and a thick beard, looks perpetually exhausted. The calm, almost unnatural way Offerman delivers many of his lines is often chilling, even when the actor appears to be saying something mundane. On the other hand, Garland’s scripts provide Offerman with plenty of philosophical speeches “The universe is deterministic,” he says in the first episode. “It’s godless, and neutral, and defined only by physical laws.” Other memorable players include Kenton (Zach Grenier), the violent head of security at Amaya; and Katie (Alison Pill), Forest’s second-in-command and the only person he appears willing to confide in.

These characters, and more, all inhabit a world that seems perfectly familiar while also being vaguely futuristic. As he did with both Ex Machina and Annihilation, Garland does an exemplary job balancing the futuristic tech with more grounded, recognizable details. The world feels both lived-in and fresh; familiar and distant at the same time. And an unshakable ominous atmosphere covers it all, with Rob Hardy’s cinematography full of dull golds, foggy San Franciso skylines, and close-ups on wide-eyed faces. Overlaying all of this is a chilling, almost religious score from Ben Salisbury, The Insects and Geoff Barrow – harsh woodwinds and echoey chants that feel culled from around the world.

But what does it all mean? Devs‘ deliberate pacing, melancholy tone (I don’t think there’s a single moment of levity in any of the eight total episodes), and unapologetically cryptic storytelling is bound to throw casual viewers off, and heaven help anyone trying to live-tweet through this beast. You need to study Devs – every frame might be giving you an answer. Or it might not. Part of the fun of this show is getting wrapped-up in its mind-blowing originality. For better or worse, Devs is a show that stands almost entirely on its own. At one point, a character here describes something as “transcendentally weird”, and that’s perhaps the perfect summation of Devs

***

Devs premieres March 5, 2020 exclusively on FX on Hulu.

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