In the films Ex Machina and Annihilation, writer-director Alex Garland established his flair for psychologically intense, intellectually engaging science fiction. With Devs — an FX on Hulu original whose first two episodes debut today exclusively on Hulu — he attempts to transfer those skills to episodic television, with results that range from transfixing to frustratingly opaque.
Devs comes with all the hallmarks of an Alex Garland story. Like Ex Machina, it focuses on the unconventional work being done at a tech company headed by an eccentric CEO who keeps his highest-priority objectives and methodologies a secret. Like both of his films, Devs contains nagging mysteries and has a slick aesthetic that experiments frequently with its visual and auditory approach. (The sound — both the portentous, mechanically tinged score and the use of effects — is spectacular in this series.) And on television as in his films, Garland, who wrote and directed all eight episodes of the miniseries, takes an approach that’s restrained, deliberate, and more concerned with what the characters do and think than what they’re like.
Those latter three qualities, however, stand out more clearly as flaws in the television world, which demands a narrative that can go deep, with characters we care about, and stay compelling over an extended runtime. Devs struggles on that front. It moves very slowly, and its understated and extremely serious sensibility can make it feel even slower than it is. Many of the conversations unfold in low tones and curt, cryptic phrases. (A sample exchange: “What’s inside?” “Everything. Everything is inside.”) Watching Devs can be an almost hypnotic experience. The problem with hypnosis is that it tends to make you sleepy, which is not, generally speaking, what a television show should be seeking to do.
At the same time, the stakes on Devs — which is a little bit sci-fi but chiefly a corporate conspiracy thriller — are established as high from the very beginning. In the first episode, Sergei (Karl Glusman), an AI coder who works at a vaguely Google-esque company called Amaya, delivers a presentation to Amaya CEO Forest (Nick Offerman) and his deputy Katie (Alison Pill), who are so impressed by his skills that they offer him a promotion. Sergei gets a coveted job on the devs team, a mysterious division of the company isolated from the rest of the campus, in a building that’s less a building than a fever dream of a Stanley Kubrick set. (A tip for Sergei: If you have to walk through the woods to get to where your desk is located, it might be time to get suspicious.) Sergei lasts only one day on the job and then is found dead in what is characterized as a suicide.
Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno, who co-starred in Ex Machina and Annihilation), a software engineer at Amaya and Sergei’s girlfriend, is immediately suspicious and starts investigating to figure out what really happened to him. As she probes deeper, Devs reveals more about Amaya, Forest’s backstory, and the nature of the work being done by the devs team, which also includes Stuart (longtime stage and screen actor Stephen McKinley Henderson) and young coding prodigy Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny).
But the series takes its time to do all that, and things get pretty confusing along the way. I was able to understand the broad strokes of what the devs group was doing, at least enough to follow the plot. (It involves quantum science and determinism, and if that qualifies as a spoiler, I don’t know what to tell you, because I barely know what that means and I just typed it with my own fingers.) But there are also instances of faulty narrative logic and a lack of specificity in Garland’s writing that make it difficult to fully engage with the series. Devs, like Forest, is so committed to not revealing certain details that it may lose chunks of the audience who get tired of waiting for Garland to pull the curtain farther back.
That said, I was intrigued just enough to want to keep watching, partly because I was invested in the story but even more because I was impressed by certain elements of the series. As challenging as it can be to get even a semi-tight grip on the particulars of Devs, the actors do a convincing job selling its version of reality. Offerman in particular stands out because his role is such a departure from the comedy for which he’s best known. Forest could be played as the classic evil tech genius, and there are certainly times when he comes across as self-involved and uncaring. But Offerman lends him an authority that has a gentleness buried within it. You can understand why people might look to him as a guide and place their trust in him.
The imagery in the series is also arresting. The work of the devs team is often rendered in full-frame close-ups of grainy, pixelated video that hints at something groundbreaking and answers that are maddeningly out of view. The Silicon Valley-based Amaya, named after Forest’s daughter, is also designed with a fascinating mix of familiar tech company style and unsettling architectural choices. There’s a massive statue of Amaya, Forest’s little girl, at the center of campus that is so haunting, it’s amazing the place employs as many people as it does.
Somewhere in Devs, there are relevant lessons to be learned about the misuse of technology and the age-old conflict between predestiny and free will, subjects that have been explored in cautionary sci-fi tales since the genre was invented. But this series is so hard to, pardon the pun, decode that any of its deeper meanings get lost. I spent a lot of my time watching Devs wondering if this would have been better as Alex Garland’s third feature film as writer and director instead of an episodic drama. Because in this form, it’s like a piece of Play-Doh that’s been stretched as wide as it will go, threatening to completely fall apart.