“I’m not sure you even understand what we’re really doing here,” quantum physicist Katie announces late in the new sci-fi thriller miniseries Devs.
Katie (Alison Pill) is addressing her coworkers on the eponymous project, a new technology allegedly so revolutionary and powerful that her boss, Forest (Nick Offerman), is willing to have people killed to protect it. She’s worried that none of her colleagues fully grasp the nature or implications of what their shiny new toy does. But she could just as easily be looking out at the audience in that moment. It’s not just that it’s tough to figure out exactly what Devs does; it’s not always easy to understand what Devs is doing, or why.
But because Devs was created by Alex Garland — the fabulously talented mind behind Ex Machina and Annihilation, who writes and directs every episode here — the confounding nature of the show and its unholy machine can often feel like a feature rather than a bug. And even when it’s a headache to follow, the sheer form of the thing is so dazzling, so hypnotic, that the plot can feel almost besides the point. (In that way, it’s a temporary heir to FX’s great style-over-substance superhero drama Legion.) One character describes the events that Forest sets in motion as “transcendently weird.” That’s about the size of Devs as a whole.
The series (the inaugural show of the new FX on Hulu imprint, available to Hulu subscribers but developed by the most creatively reliable network around) takes place in some near-future version of Silicon Valley. Young lovers Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman) both work, in separate divisions, for Forest’s company Amaya, named for his late daughter. Sergei gets promoted to work in Devs, operating out of a building deep in the wooded Amaya campus, and is stunned to learn exactly what’s been built there.
“But you see,” he frets, “this changes everything. If it’s true, it literally changes every single thing.”
“No, if it’s true, it changes absolutely nothing,” Forest replies in his reassuringly laconic manner. “In a way, that’s the point.”
Yeah, it’s that kind of show.
Soon, all hell has broken loose. Lily is on the run from both the authorities and Forest’s ruthless fixer Kenton (Zach Grenier, making David Lee’s occasional homicidal expressions on The Good Wife into reality). Russian spies are brazenly operating on American soil. And Forest? Well… Forest mostly watches television. Because among the many themes that Garland is exploring is the very nature of watching a show like this and letting the glowing screen in front of you supersede the real world outside your window.
Or, at least, I think that’s one of the themes Garland is exploring, because, again, it’s that kind of show.
But it’s also the kind of show whose presentation and artistry are so self-assured, they wipe away much of the confusion and replace it with bone-chilling nightmare.
The Amaya campus is a visual marvel, starting with its most prominent feature: an unnervingly lifelike statue of its namesake, so tall its head and inquisitive eyes loom over the treetops, visible from miles around. Go a little lower down, and many of the trees have been turned into huge fluorescent lamps that resemble psychedelic mushrooms. The Devs building itself is flanked by gold obelisks that look like if Stanley Kubrick hired Teresa Giudice to do production design on 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the chief feature inside the building is a floating gold cube, held aloft by magnetic fields — a design so beautiful, yet so precarious, that every scene in it is laced with an undercurrent of dread that it could all come crashing down at any moment.
This, too, is the feeling that Devs as a whole sometimes provides. Though there are occasional flashes of dry humor — usually coming either from Kenton or from the interplay between Lily and her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) — for the most part it is an almost oppressively grim eight-hour experience. Characters frequently debate the merits of determinism, a philosophical belief(*) that free will is an illusion, yet the show seems to contradict itself at several key moments about how determinism and Devs are linked. And as our ostensible heroine, Mizuno is given a striking pixie cut (which ultimately links her to something happening in the Devs building), but precious little to play beyond fear and understandable confusion about what Forest and Katie are doing.
(*) Offerman’s most recent TV appearance was a cameo in The Good Place finale. Tonally, these two shows couldn’t be more different, but every now and then there’s some startling thematic overlap.
But there’s something riveting in the confident stillness of both Offerman and Pill. He’s most famous for using that gift for underplaying things as Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec, but that affect proves just as potent in drama as it did in comedy. His hair and beard much shaggier than normal, he seems every bit the master-of-the-universe type who prompts Jamie to warn Lily, “I think you need to stop thinking of them as a tech company. See them as a mob.” Pill, meanwhile, is pulling double duty this spring between Devs and Star Trek: Picard, in both cases playing brittle geniuses. But the characters seem nothing alike beyond their minds and Pill’s expressive face. Forest is the one with all the money and the power, and Kenton is the guy who knows creative ways to commit murder, but in many ways Katie is the scariest of the trio because of how unblinkingly she believes in whatever the hell it is they’re doing.
And if Pill won’t haunt your dreams, the series’ rumbling score — crafted in collaboration among Ben Salisbury, The Insects, and Geoff Barrow — certainly will. There are occasional echoes of other people’s work in there (some of the loud stings recall Hans Zimmer’s compositions for Inception), but most of it sounds and feels completely alien, the better to illustrate how rapidly Forest and his collaborators are trying to depart from the rules of the known world. Garland uses their soundscapes to spectacular effect throughout, but particularly to accompany the occasional action set pieces, like a brutal, slow-motion fight between two aging spies who are keenly aware one of them won’t survive.
“Life is just something we watch unfold, like pictures on a screen,” one character argues late in the season. This seems like a reductive, depressing way to think about the world, draining our existence of any meaning beyond being puppets to the whims of fate. There are moments throughout Devs that left me frustrated with how similarly hollow they felt, and I’m not sure the ending entirely lands. Yet the way that Garland and his collaborators composed and arranged the pictures on the screen left me entranced throughout. I’m still not sure I know what the point of the Devs project is, but I loved watching Devs unfold.
The first two episodes of Devs premiere March 5th on Hulu, with episodes premiering weekly after that. I’ve seen all eight episodes.