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‘Devs’ Is a TV Show—but It Feels Like Something Completely Different

Following ‘Ex Machina’ and ‘Annihilation,’ Alex Garland has come to the small screen with a limited series that furthers the director’s thoughts on technology while both failing as a television show and transcending the medium altogether

Hulu/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

There’s not much I can tell you about Devs. I can’t disclose, for instance, the precise nature of the show’s namesake, the top-secret research division of a Silicon Valley tech company named Amaya. I can’t reveal what Amaya’s gnomic founder, Forest (Nick Offerman), plans to do with Devs once its quantum computing system is perfected, nor the theoretical breakthroughs that lead to its perfection later in the limited series’ eight-episode season. I also can’t say why Devs was commissioned and paid for by FX but is available exclusively on Hulu in the latest wrinkle of the ongoing Disney-Fox merger, though that has more to do with reasons of personal comprehension than spoiler-dictated secrecy.

What I can tell you is that Devs assembles these components into nothing less than a consideration of fate versus free will, as writer-director Alex Garland spellbinds the audience with his signature sense of atmosphere. Devs is Garland’s first full foray into television and third turn behind the camera, following his 2015 debut Ex Machina and 2018 follow-up Annihilation. Garland had previously developed a substantial body of work as a novelist and screenwriter (The Beach, 28 Days Later …, Never Let Me Go), but it’s still remarkable how quickly he’s established a recognizable palette. A monklike eccentric whose casual bearing belies a monstrous drive, Forest is drawn from the same blueprint as Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman, architect of Ex Machina’s self-aware AI. Lush and leafy, Amaya’s campus is more manicured than Annihilation’s ever-expanding Shimmer, but evokes the same blurred line between organic chaos and imposed order. Above all, Garland is intrigued by the crossover point where science and nature become one and the same, the former widening into abstraction and the latter revealing its elegant geometry. Garland’s high-tech science fiction ultimately isn’t cold or sterile; it’s verdant, even mystical.

Devs channels these interests through programmer Lily Chan, played by Garland collaborator and former ballet dancer Sonoya Mizuno. The first two episodes of Devs, now available to stream back-to-back, perform a sort of bait-and-switch. At its start, the story seems poised to follow Lily’s live-in boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), a fellow Amaya employee whose latest breakthrough—he develops an algorithm to anticipate the behavior of single-celled organisms—earns him a promotion to Devs. But after Sergei mysteriously disappears, Devs turns its focus to Lily.

Mizuno played a mad scientist in her own right in Netflix’s Maniac, but Lily is her first chance to inhabit a more fleshed-out character in Garland’s work, from which she’s likely best remembered as Oscar Isaac’s dance partner or Natalie Portman’s alien doppelgänger. In her quest to take down Forest with the help of her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha), Lily takes on the qualities of a mythic hero: defiance, determination, a lost loved one who serves as a motive. She’s David taking on the Goliath of unchecked capitalist ego, Arthur wielding the sword of her own force of will. She’s also an Asian American woman, an inversion of sci-fi’s bro-ish clichés that Garland is also fond of: Annihilation’s team of scientists with a not-so-secret death wish was all female, its heroine another recent widow; Ex Machina turned the tables on its everyman protagonist to reveal itself, Westworld-style, as the liberation of a synthetic, sentient woman.

Lily has a formidable adversary in Forest, a surprisingly effective expansion of Offerman’s previously wood-carved lane. There’s a meta amusement to watching the notorious Luddite Ron Swanson—he of the immortal dumps-computer-in-trash reaction GIF—transformed into a man too convinced of technology’s redemptive power. But the surprise quickly fades in the face of Offerman’s performance, unusual for a comedian taking on a serious role. Garland’s view of tech moguls is forthright and in line with increasingly cynical public opinion: “He’s not a fuckin’ genius,” another character observes of Forest. “He’s an entrepreneur.” Bizarre details like eating salad with his hands aside, though, Forest is far more than a proxy for Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. He’s an avuncular, empathetic figure with an eerily unshakable belief that choice is an illusion. You don’t have to know the terrifying ways Forest applies that belief to figure that nothing good can come of it.

Amaya is named after Forest’s deceased young daughter, of whom a massive statue looms eternally over its campus. Nothing ominous there! Devs is filled with such feats of production design, refracting the now-familiar tropes of 2010s San Francisco through Garland’s symmetrical, smoothly lit compositions. (It’s always either early morning or golden hour in an Alex Garland joint.) Devs is not an outright satire of Silicon Valley, but its vision of hoodie-sporting employees bused from one luxury environment in the city to another, more spacious one on the peninsula is precisely rendered, a recognizable entry point into increasingly surreal territory. Trees surrounded by rings of light; a glass cube floating in a vacuum-sealed chamber; mandala-like carvings on the walls; the supercomputer powering Devs itself, bathed in amber light and looking more like an elaborate organ than a piece of hardware.

Stanley Kubrick is to Devs as David Fincher is to Mr. Robot: a reference point to which the show is either a shallow ripoff or a careful homage, depending on the eye of the beholder. Surrounding the Devs facility with 2001-style obelisks and slipping in a flashback to the prehistoric past, Garland makes the influence clear enough that I lean toward homage. Regardless, Devs is the kind of show that will quickly overplay its hand with those not inclined to indulge its excesses. The dialogue is overwrought, stuffed with portentous discussions of determinism and autonomy. The themes are obvious. (“You know the problem with people who run tech companies? They have too much power!”) Someone literally recites Yeats’s “The Second Coming” over a climactic scene. On the other hand, when the story is so blatantly spelled out, it frees up mental real estate for the mind-bending visuals. The result is easy to dismiss as rips bong stoner psychedelia, and easy to embrace as the same.

Garland has a simpler time balancing these elements in features, where the balance of a writer-director’s duties is more firmly weighted toward the title’s back half. To be honest, I’m not entirely convinced Devs wouldn’t work best as a three-hour film, nor that Garland chose to make it a show for reasons of creative fit rather than television currently being a slightly friendlier home for original, mid-budget stories. (Paramount essentially pawned off Annihilation’s international distribution to Netflix, a move widely seen as the studio walking away rather than doing the work of selling a “weird” or “difficult” project.) Some of Devs’ least successful elements, like an unhoused character who sleeps outside Lily’s apartment and serves a groan-worthy guardian angel role, are the ones that manufacture plot to fill its eight-hour run.

As much as Garland’s previous film work, Devs is reminiscent of Sharp Objects, another mood-first tone poem driven by its director’s sensibility and a slew of strong performances. Like Sharp Objects, Devs offers total immersion in a hand-crafted, artisanal vibe, its choral score wrapping the viewer in a weighted blanket of gorgeous sound. And like Sharp Objects, Devs excels where TV often doesn’t even as it lags where TV often does. It’s a trade-off I’m more than willing to make, though I can’t exactly blame others who aren’t. You’re either vibrating on Devs’ frequency or you’re not—the only way to find out is to watch.