There’s something calming about writing a review of a show which you know is going to be polarizing—not because of its quality, but because it is so keenly honed to be exactly what it’s meant to be that it’s hard to find fault with its choices. This is basically the best way of saying that the only controversial thing about FX’s Devs is whether or not you’re going to like it. There’s a very good chance you might not! But that is because while on every technical level it’s very well made, this is a show that has no interest in catering to the audience’s appreciation. Either you’re in or you’re out, and you get a sense when watching that if you’re out, Devs has no hard feelings.
This is in part because the thriller series about a mysterious technology company and its extreme approach to internal security—to put it mildly—is so very much the creation of writer/director Alex Garland that even if you don’t like it (again not liking it, for the record, is a very understandable and defensible position!) it’s hard not to appreciate the craft on display. Very necessary shoutouts are due here to production designer Mark Digby and cinematographer Rob Hardy for creating some of 2020’s most hauntingly beautiful images. (So much gold!)
The series begins with the introduction of technologically brilliant Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her sweet boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman), who live in a truly gorgeous San Francisco apartment but ride the company shuttle to the wooded suburban offices of Amaya. It’s a Google-esque operation which has an ultra-secret project knows as Devs in the works, one which Sergei hopes to join. But Sergei’s motives, not to mention the Devs project, speak to hidden dangers …
… And that’s about as far as one can get in describing the plot of this show, before spoiling its earliest twists. (And boy, does Devs sling about some twists.) But one can tease that what, exactly, the Devs project is hoping to achieve is a massive undercurrent of the series, one which carries with it such weight that things like treason and murder don’t feel proportionally out of place.
FX has always been a home for auteur TV, and Garland, who didn’t do FX any favors with its diversity stats by writing and directing every episode, is definitely making sure his voice is heard. The world he crafts proves to be an austere, sometimes scary, but more often beautiful one. Lovers of Ex Machina will feel like they’re snuggling into a bed made up with just-washed sheets; those who found that movie cold and aloof will yearn for a warm quilt.
There’s very little warmth or humor in Devs, it should be said, even given its cast. Put this ensemble, including Mizuno, Alison Pill, Zach Grenier and most especially Nick Offerman, in a traditional comedy, and you’d have no trouble getting giggles. But while this exceptional cast proves exceptional here as well—Mizuno in particular is a captivating lead—the dry tone means that everyone is playing things super-straight, in such a way that as interesting as the mysteries of Devs might be, a binge experience will not be that enjoyable. Just because, you know, it’ll bum you out.
One element that encourages a slow-burn approach to viewing: Huge ideas are in discussion here, including ones which play with religion to an unexpected degree. Episode 6, in fact, basically breaks down into a series of two-hander scenes, full of challenging issues you might want to sit with, for some time. They’re ideas which make full sense for these characters to be debating, as masters of the technology they’ve created.
Another argument against bingeing, though, is that Devs is a very intellectually heavy piece, and one which Garland has done a fantastic job of breaking down into true episodes. (The show does fall into the interesting pattern of having the fifth episode be the “flashback” episode, but in Devs’s case, it leads to the most daring episode of the season on many levels.)
I’ve never been shocked by the devotion which people show towards technology, because I spent 20 years of my life growing up in the shadow of Silicon Valley. My parents worked for the companies established in the strip of California peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose, and while some were based in unglamorous office parks, there were also the companies that eschewed the “office” label, calling themselves “campuses,” with the same austere silence on the grounds that Devs captures beautifully.
One of the things I learned, as a child of the technology industry, is how these companies craft a very real, palpable sensation of a mission, not a job. Whether legit or cultivated to increase worker productivity, it makes the very air of the office space feel different, more important—even when, at times, no one working in that place, in that moment, had a real shot at changing the world.
However, truth is very different from dreams—much like the environments Devs creates on screen are from reality. In our world, things might get a little messier, a little bleaker; but no less interesting, for better or worse. Devs has its elements of mess, all carefully cultivated by Garland to up the stakes, and some of them are haunting. This is one of those “limited series unless someone says otherwise” shows, and having watched all eight episodes, it does feel like a complete narrative.
But also, one thing that’s known about any piece of technology is that it’s hard to kill. Devs is far from obsolete today, and in the future it might have more to say.
The first two episodes of Devs premiere March 5th on Hulu; subsequent episodes will be released weekly (as part of FX’s new partnership with Hulu).
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.
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