Devs review: Alex Garland's thriller splits EW's critics
Disney's newest we-own-everything initiative is FX on Hulu, a cable-streaming hybrid launching this week. The flagship project is Devs, a science-fiction miniseries premiering March 5 on Hulu. Entertainment Weekly TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich, have watched all of Devs; they do not agree on it. Maybe it's the multiverse's fault?
KRISTEN: The central premise of this eight-episode miniseries from Alex Garland (Annihilation) is simple: A computer engineer named Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) tries to figure out what happened after her boyfriend goes missing. The unfolding mystery, though, is almost comically hard to explain in a spoiler-free post (as this is), but here’s what we can say: Lily’s story comprises murder, romance, espionage, heartbreak, quantum physics.
Here are the basics: Lily and her boyfriend, an artificial intelligence coder named Sergei (Karl Glusman), live together in San Francisco. Every morning, they commute via luxury shuttle bus to their jobs at a tech company called Amaya, run by a long-haired bazillionaire named Forest (Nick Offerman). After giving a successful presentation involving a nematode, Sergei is promoted to Amaya’s special, highly secretive Devs division.
So far, so whatever, right? The first thing to grab me about Devs was an aerial shot from Lily and Sergei’s commute. As the bus travels out of the city to Amaya’s secluded campus, the camera zooms back to reveal something… strange looming over the tree line: a giant statue of a curly-haired little girl, her hands raised in a pose of excitement or wonder. That massive metal child, staring dead-eyed over the Devs landscape, is our first indication that something is most definitely off about this place, and the guy who runs it. That foreboding is juxtaposed with our first meeting with Forest himself, which is so maddeningly, hilariously obnoxious (and accurate, as anyone who’s worked at a tech company will tell you): He shows up late to a meeting, then proceeds to eat dry greens with his hands while Sergei gives the most important presentation of his young career.
The first nine minutes of the pilot did more to hook me than months of FX’s aggressively cryptic ad campaign ever could. What did you know about Devs going in, Darren, and what were your first impressions?
DARREN: As I boarded the floating elevator to the vacuum-sealed chamber inside the pyramid where I watch all my TV, I knew two things about Devs. First: Every episode is written and directed by Garland, a filmmaker I sort of admire. He wrote 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd, an essential trilogy of hard-R genre brainblows. Then he made Ex Machina and Annihilation, dreamy science fiction featuring great performances and no small amount of Deep Thought navel-gazing.
Second: I knew that you really dug Devs, Kristen, which gave me hope. And Garland does a great job of sketching the casual surrealities of Lily’s life in the post-kabillionaire Bay Area: nice apartment overlooking Dolores Park, homeless people to step over on the way to the company bus, utopian campus deep in the forest, preening CEO with a secret project requiring double-secret security clearance, the general feeling that working at Amaya means never engaging with anyone who doesn’t work at Amaya.
All that pretty much goes out the window after the fatal incident that climaxes the premiere. From there, Devs becomes a shockingly dull exercise in violent prestige blandness, with half-formed conceptuality sprinkled atop a flat-out goofy thriller. Forest turns into a monastic presence, all trace of Musk-ian braggadocio disappearing into a mournful subplot that I just never latched onto. Meanwhile, Lily spends too long trapped a very House of Cards-y version of techno-paranoia, complete with various exciting ways to strangle people. Mizuno was a fun deadpan presence in Ex Machina and Netflix’s Maniac, but she’s just not compelling as a driven investigator. And the precise nature of her investigation requires some lazy writing, including a Very Important Computer with zero security protocols and a daring escape via open window.
For too long, Lily’s stranded far from the essential question: What is Devs? We get a lot of portentous, opaque peeks into the Devs computer bay, where Cailee Spaeny and Stephen McKinley Henderson play a show-stealing pair of computer engineers. If you cut through all the roundabout storytelling, though, the central sci-fi thing is, like, something Star Trek would’ve explored sans obfuscatory drapery in one hourlong episode 50 years ago. Am I missing something here, Kristen?
KRISTEN: Here’s where I think our interpretations diverge: For you, the show’s essential question is “What is Devs?” For me, I got hooked on another question: Why is Devs? Lily definitely spends much of the series trying to determine what Forest is doing with his Mysterious Software Code — and there are certainly some flagrant “Oh, come on!” moments, like that open-window escape you mentioned. (Also, characters in the Devs lab spend a lot of time staring in awe at a powerful processor of some kind… but it just looks like an elaborate espresso maker.)
Even after watching the season twice, I’m not 100 percent sure what Devs actually is or how it works. And honestly, I don’t really care. For me, the appeal of Garland’s story comes down to what drove Forest to build it. Oftentimes, cautionary tales about the existential dangers of artificial intelligence and how machines will ultimately rob us of our humanity — well, they forget to make their characters feel human. Devs sets you up to believe that it’s going to be some kind of chilly, Black Mirror-esque dreadfest, but the show starts undermining that idea almost immediately by infusing scenes with small and unexpected touches of emotion. When Sergei first gets the offer to join Devs, he’s so overcome that he tears up. (Glusman is so good in that moment, delivering hours of backstory without saying a word.) Forest shoving greens in his mouth is another telling detail: This is a guy so focused on his goal that he almost resents his body’s need for sustenance. But for all his portentous prophesying and messianic leadership style, Forest is still absolutely leveled by a video of his daughter blowing bubbles.
“It’s an amazing thing where love will take you,” Forest says in episode 6. “The lengths you’ll go.” Is that a little corny? Sure. But if you’re going to give me a sleekly designed not-quite-alternate reality featuring a terrifying computer code and a floating elevator, your story had better have a heart.
While we don't agree on the success of Devs’ storytelling, Darren, I'm guessing we share an appreciation for the cast. Which performances stood out to you the most?
DARREN: Well, my favorite character is Zach Grenier's Kenton. He's the Amaya head of security, which quickly makes him the go-to Action Man for the ever-more-elaborate set pieces. Grenier is one of the great character actors, and his bureaucratic bearing becomes oddly charming as he starts reigning general terror. Garland’s past work represents a not-always-stable balance between pulp thrills and cosmic inquisition, and Kenton feels like a delicious Dredd toughie beamed into doleful stare-at-reality seminar. (In plot terms, he's a sibling to the random astronaut-slashing murderer in Sunshine.)
I do love a good chilly Black Mirror-esque dreadfest, Kristen. And the best episodes of that series paint with a complicated emotional palette, suggesting that the problems of modernity keep inventing new ways for humanity to implode.
Here, cauterized grief is pretty much the only note Offerman gets to play. Which, in a strange way, turns Devs into propaganda for the technocracy. Forest’s intentions are shrouded in mystery and finale twists. But from the start, it's clear that he really is a thoughtful, horizon-seeking philosopher-king opening the doors of perception in an expensively furnished dark room, so modest and self-flagellating that he still lives in his pre-billionaire house. I suspect it would offend Garland’s tasteful sensibilities to make Forest a monster of capitalism enabling dictators via ad-targeting while snorting up real estate in New Zealand, like an actual tech CEO. But even the not-exactly-subtle Westworld nailed some trenchant commentary on weaponized private data, before everyone turned into revolutionary shape-changers.
I really did enjoy the scenes with Spaeny and Henderson, though. Their odd-couple interaction feels beamed in from a Philip K. Dick-ian dark comedy of cyber-god manners. Were there other performances that stuck out to you?
KRISTEN: For sure: Grenier just kills it as Kenton (heh heh). The actor’s sleepy eyes and immutable demeanor reminded me of Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut, though Kenton is almost more terrifying because he can actually pretend to be genial. And I absolutely love that Garland chose to cast actress Cailee Spaeny as 19-year-old Lyndon. Spaeny is completely convincing as the kid genius programmer who nonetheless doesn’t quite grasp the danger he’s in. And the decision to cast a woman — albeit one with beautifully androgynous features — in this role is just one more way that everything in Devs is designed to leave the viewer a little disoriented. You can take nothing at face value — in this case, literally.
Another capital-c Choice is Mizuno’s performance as Lily. Her measured, meticulous delivery of every word only gets more and more pronounced as the craziness of the story progresses. It irritated me at first, especially in the early episodes, but over time it began to make sense: As the foundation of Lily’s world disintegrates beneath her, she overcompensates by speaking ever more slow-ly and de-lib-er-ate-ly.
To be sure, Devs seems to have less to say about “weaponized private data” than it does about the very nature of existence: Do humans have free will, or do our lives run on predetermined “tram lines,” as Forest believes? (And I, for one, feel a little bit smarter having Googled “the Everett interpretation” and “the de Broglie-Bohm theory,” so thanks for that, Devs.) Still, what I love most about the show is that it tackles wonky, philosophical sci-fi tropes in wonderfully unpredictable ways. One scene I can’t get out of my mind comes in the second-to-last episode: As Lily and another prominent female character have a tense, pivotal discussion about What It All Means, Forest and another prominent male character sit outside and… talk about their feelings. In that moment, this prestige streamer drama — created, written and directed by a man — delivers a narrative climax that passes the Bechdel Test (and fails whatever the equivalent is for male characters). That’s the kind of science fiction I can get behind.
DARREN: We’re certainly overdue for a riotous female-forward thriller about the plight of womanhood in Silicon Valley. I just don’t think this is it. It’s telling that in a show so dedicated to the infinite possibilities of computer engineering, Lily’s importance in the story never has anything to do with the fact that she is a computer engineer.
Allison Pill has cornered the market on playing smart-yet-shady scientists, and her role as Forest’s second-in-command, Katie, is a priestly alternative to her secretive turn on Star Trek: Picard. But the show’s rigid focus on ultimate cruciality of Lily and Forest leaves Katie in a subservient position — and reflects my deeper suspicion that Devs is yet another two-hour movie idea stretched to miniseries length with blind-alley plot turns and nonsense personalities. There’s a thread about government interference that only exists to prove Devs has budget for a helicopter. Let’s not even get into the Chatty Homeless Guy.
Garland’s style approximates religious awe: choirs on the soundtrack, dialogue about Messiahs, the neon cathedral of Devs itself. In episode 7, one character starts reciting Philip Larkin; one episode later, the same character reads “The Second Coming,” by W.B. Yeats. My, aren’t we fancy! All that humorlessly hyperlinked self-importance removes Devs from the casual humanity of even the most ornate Black Mirrors. We'll have to circle back after the finale to debate the (to my eyes totally inane) final answer that Devs coughs up for its existential questions.
I want a world where we can all have respectful and intensive arguments about mature sci-fi TV series, Kristen. So I’m glad that the series worked so well for you. For me, it’s a frustrating missed opportunity. I’d be more convinced by all the predestination soliloquies if the plot didn’t feel tram-lined through so many clichés and phony notes of unearned catharsis. Of course the characters don’t have free will. That would require imagination, something Devs can only simulate.
KRISTEN'S GRADE: A-
DARREN'S GRADE: C