Alex Garland cut his teeth as a writer, including two novels (The Beach, The Tesseract) and films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and he’s still a writer, through and through, although he’s since “graduated” to directing his projects. He’s still exploring a blend of sci-fi and horror themes, which come together as a brand that’s best summarized as reflecting futuristic paranoia. Underneath all of the labels, he tends to explore the nature of humanity and the ways that it destroys itself, but in the helmer’s seat, it’s safe to say that Garland’s reached auteur status. His vision with each project, to date including Annihilation and Ex Machina, leaves an indelible and almost telltale mark. In the case of the latter project, he created a beautifully frightening aesthetic, paired with commanding, charismatic performances, all of which brought an exquisite yet disturbing parable to life. Not coincidentally, those are also descriptors that I’d use to recommend Devs.
FX on Hulu’s Devs is a limited series that’s written and directed by Garland. It’s his first TV project, and he’s throttled the challenge with his bare hands. The show is full of stunning visuals — like a several-stories-high statue of a young child to mark the campus of a Silicon Valley tech company, Amaya; a gold-encrusted cube that serves as a workspace; and gorgeous aerial shots of neighboring San Francisco — but the hypnotically haunting story remains the first priority. The less of that story that I give away here, the better, because Devs is worth watching unfold on one’s own. I can say that this show is Garland going full Garland, but more than that, the best news that I could possibly give you here in terms of a recommendation is this:
– Devs will appeal to those viewers who gravitate toward Westworld but prefer a show that’s only about 25% as confusing. It might be similarly polarizing, though, for reasons that infuriate some of its characters and justifiably so.
– “What is Devs?” is a question that permeates throughout the entire series, and this self-referential echoing will be one of several things that people will either adore or find pretentious. The show’s central strength, other than Garland’s fingerprints, would be two lead actors who will knock your socks off.
The most mainstream of the pair would be Nick Offerman. You’re familiar with his work, and of course, folks always think about Ron Swanson. That mustache, that quotable nature, and the gruff, deadpan humor made him a beloved standby for Parks and Rec fans. Offerman hasn’t exactly been confined in that box, but he hasn’t discouraged it. He’s done, um, lots of voice roles. So many voice roles. He stretched his legs as a drunken, flowerly Fargo character, but he’s still been forever Ron Swanson, to the point of reteaming with Amy Poehler for a (delightful) craft show.
In Devs, Offerman surfaces in a dramatic role that showcases his versatility. He’s magnetic as the Amaya CEO, Forest, who’s a bit of a madman, as one might expect from a Silicon Valley figure as written by Garland. Offerman does not fall into clichéd portrayal, though. Leave that stuff to the most recent season of Black Mirror and its Jack Dorsey-esque representation of a tech power player. Forest’s more difficult to pin down. He’s offering up lectures on quantum computing and predestination, and he’s a hypnotic tyrant who withholds himself to most people. You won’t know whether to trust the guy or want to throw him in a wood chipper. Offerman’s chilling performance underneath that bushy beard is brilliant.
The other lead is a familiar face to Garland fans. Sonoya Mizuno portrayed the stoically dancing sex robot to Oscar Isaac’s messiah-obsessed genius in Ex Machina. In 2018, she embodied a fan-favorite character in Cary Fukanaga’s Maniac as Dr. Azumi Fujita (the moment when she accuses Justin Theroux’s character of “copulating with software” has gone tragically unappreciated). In Devs, Mizuno’s the protagonist who sets out to solve a terrible crime that befalls her developer boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman). Like Forest, Lily’s adept at holding back emotion, and her intent on a personal level can be cryptic at times, but she eventually runs the gamut of every emotion possible. Her actions are often reckless and slightly baffling, but Mizuno delivers a fierce performance while challenging notions of free will and fate. She also goes head-to-head with Forest and everything that his too-powerful Silicon Valley company represents.
Beyond those two centerpiece figures, Devs is a delightful way to spend about eight hours of total viewing time. Garland’s specific blend of storytelling lends itself to draw out mysteries in a questioning way, and that could have backfired in a series format. However, the show doesn’t fall into bloat. It’s surprisingly economical, in fact, with every moment in service to solving two central mysteries, and much credit goes to Alison Pill, who’s playing a frosty right-hand to Forest and doing a lot of the expositional lifting to push the show along to a climactic crescendo. The finale struggles somewhat while tying up a grounded-in-reality crime alongside esoteric questions presented by Amaya and the show, but the ride to the end is worth the investment. Consider it a warm-up to the next Westworld season, but at least you’ll receive some answers in a neatly-wrapped up bow.
Devs is the first original series that’s being used to push the new FX on Hulu program. You won’t be able to watch this series on FX the cable channel, and that might be a shame because it’s an engrossing project. Yet by making this show only available through the Hulu platform, the streaming service can push towards more original programming. This strategy will ideally help boost subscriber numbers, but I wonder if that plan will ultimately be a blessing or a curse for Devs.
That said, the series will air on a weekly basis, and that’s cause for celebration because this show isn’t one that I’d recommend binging too quickly. Rather, it’s truly one of those works that lends itself to savoring, one episode at a time, because many philosophical and moral conundrums arise, and you’ll wanna roll this one around in your head for a while. Come for atypical Offerman, and stick around for an FX show that’s every bit as strange and unsettling as Garland fans would want it to be.
FX on Hulu’s ‘Devs’ premieres on March 5.