Devs: Series Review

“The tram lines are still there.”

This review contains minor spoilers, mostly about how this show isn’t quite what it seems to be after the first episode.

Alex Garland, writer/director of Ex Machina and Annihilation, tries his hand at television in this Hulu/FX limited series about corporate espionage and the meaning of existence in present-day Silicon Valley.

The premise of Devs is provocative: will Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) figure out why tech billionaire Forest (Nick Offerman) killed her boyfriend after he gained access to the top-secret Devs program at Forest’s massive internet company?

The results are a mixed bag, as Devs takes a while to introduce most of its key themes. I could almost imagine a whiteboard in a writer’s room—a room consisting only of Alex Garland and a bag of potato chips—that said “and then we’ll really pull the rug out from under them!” under every episode description. The first half of the eight-episode limited series is practically a spy thriller as Lily battles bad guys, Russian spies, and tech surveillance.

But the second half of the series is a meditation on free will vs. determinism, the messianic pretentions of tech gurus, and the nature of the universe. Those are the ideas Garland is most interested in, I think: Is the future set in stone? Can individual choices lead to a variety of branching timelines? Is it possible to act outside of the scripts that the universe dictates for us? What if we don’t know the scripts?

I love those questions as much as the next person, which is to say that I’m willing to join a free will vs. determinism debate as long as I can be the person who says “No, you’re missing the point, defining all of your terms incorrectly, and failing to take into account the importance of situationally-specific foreknowledge.” I wound up nearly shouting those words at my screen on more than one occasion.

But if those big-philosophy ideas appeal to you, then Devs might tweak your antenna, especially because so much of this series is done right. It is beautiful to look at, from the overhead shots of San Francisco to the rolling hills of the South Bay—not to mention Garland’s favorite shot, through glass and slightly off-center, of protagonists caught in a world they don’t fully see or understand. The music is awesome.

The casting is hit or miss. Nick Offerman plays against type, to astonishing effect: the actor’s calm demeanor, usually as comforting as a homemade rocking chair, here masks a thinly-veiled sociopathy that his tech entrepreneur would describe only as philosophical realism. I really enjoy Nick Offerman, and now I enjoy his work in an entirely new way.

Although they are technically just supporting actors, Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Stewart) and Cailee Spaeny (as programming prodigy Lyndon) are also standouts: their characters have a May/December friendship that works beautifully, from Stewart’s desire to take care of Lyndon, to Lyndon’s own ambitious intelligence.

The two female characters at the center of the conflict—Lily herself, and Katie (played by the delightful Alison Pill)—are fascinating. Pill ably portrays Katie in a variety of perspectives, from brash youthful arrogance to stone-cold adult maturity to gobsmacked heartbroken disaster, all with a few changes of voice.

Sonoya Mizuno, who plays Lily, is something of a muse for Garland, having appeared in a few of his works. Here, she is tomboyish and quiet, able to take risks and fight back, but realistically limited in the way that all real, non-television people are.

I really wanted to like Lily, if for no other reason than her being the protagonist, but the script made it difficult: Garland tells and doesn’t show. Other characters tell us, and Lily herself, what she is like—we only rarely see evidence that backs them up. And Lily’s affect is flat. Not surprising, given what she goes through over the course of these episodes, but hard to connect with, nonetheless.

The result feels like a series of If-Then statements: if you like Big Philosophical Ideas, then you’ll like the second half of this show. If you like a gimlet-eyed glare at Silicon Valley’s pretensions, then you’ll appreciate the dialogue in the last two episodes. If you like suspense, then you’ll like the first half of the series. If you’re really, really, into the Matrix, then you’ll find some breadcrumbs that allow you to work out your Neo kinks for a few minutes.

But you also may, like me, feel a bit unsatisfied. Perhaps I wanted something this series wasn’t promising. A clearer portrayal of the messianism so many people have for tech gurus, for example. A more meta awareness of the way that projections and simulations are not quite the same thing. A willingness to let me wonder, exactly, what happened and could have happened, who people were and why they would pretend to be something else.

It’s a question that Devs itself wants to, but doesn’t quite, explore: if what I want to happen doesn’t happen, does that mean that the event itself is wrong, or that I am?

Two and a half out of four gods.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

3 comments:

milostanfield said...

Hard to talk much about this one without spoilering. The big scene for me was Katie and Lyndon at Crystal Springs Reservoir. Made me think about how in a world of nothing but tram lines there can be no ethics because there is no free agent that can make a real choice. If what happened there made it to trial, what would the charges and outcome be? The degree of culpability?

Determinism scares the hell outa me. Prefer a universe that mostly hews to probabilities but can at least wiggle its butt a little. Tram lines? Where are my scissors?

Unlike you I was turned off by both Forest and Katie when they were first introduced. The constant deer in headlights stares got old fast. But after I realized why they had those stares I was cool with it. Loved how the way Katie walked was just like the fake Sergei walk in that surviellance video. Reminded me of a line from an old Beatles song: "she thinks that she is in a play, but she is anyway."

I loved watching Mizuno’s Lily just move. Sonoya is also a dancer. It showed.

Always fun to watch a show filmed where you live and suss out how local geography is bent to serve the plot. Forest’s home was definitely not in San Francisco, unlike how the establishing shots set it up. That was down the peninsula somewhere. Lily’s apartment was really in SF. So was Stewart’s RV. It was below the Central freeway where Lily and Kenton "had fun in a Beemer".

Speaking of Kenton, I relished his villainy even though it was merely instrumental. Dude really gets into strangling.

TJ said...

Great review Josie!

This one really wasn't for me. I struggled for 5 episodes and then I couldn't stand it anymore so I gave up. I don't mind slow, but this was irritatingly slow. And the whole viewing experience was just unpleasant.

Logan Cox said...

Thank you for reviewing this, Josie.

I'm still interested. Mostly because I'm a fan of Alex Garland and Nick Offerman, but also because it just looks like something that would be up my alley.