We’re approaching the fourth week of the binge-watching marathon to end them all, but there’s only been one show that’s managed to catch my attention and hold me fully captivated on a technical and emotional level unlike anything I’ve seen on TV so far this year.
And — like the show’s creator — it only gets weirder the further down the rabbit hole we go.
Brought to the screen by visionary filmmaker Alex Garland of “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” fame, “Devs” tells the tale of a software engineer named Lily Chan, played by Sonoya Mizuno, a Chinese American woman who works for a mysterious Silicon Valley tech company called Amaya. When Lily’s boyfriend and fellow coworker Sergei disappears one day, later found burned alive in the wake of his promotion to the company’s well-guarded special projects (or “devs”) team, she takes it upon herself to put together the clues behind the so-called “accident” in her place of business.
Enlisting the help of her former boyfriend Jaime, played by Jin Ha, and fighting her way through the hurdles thrown in the way of her quest for the truth, Lily comes to discover that something much more sinister is happening at Amaya — which the company’s obsessed founder Forrest, played by Nick Offerman, will do anything to keep hidden.
From a purely visual level, the eight-episode series, written and directed by Garland, matches — if not fully exceeds — many of the haunting painterly choices that made his previous film projects so engrossing. The beautiful and otherworldly backgrounds and sense of ambient unease that made those walks through the forest in “Annihilation” such a spectacle to consume show up with more grounded, futuristic Northern California elements in “Devs,” making viewers question when this storyline could possibly be taking place and wondering aloud if Facebook or Google themselves could be running such sinister operations from their own complexes.
Coupled with the sleek, modern architecture of the Amaya compound, work facilities and a haunting musical score that feels eerily familiar for viewers of Garland’s artificial intelligence character study “Ex Machina” — unnerving places and spaces abound. Garland keeps audiences fascinated with images like a monumental — and highly disturbing — statue of a young girl above the tree line and other strange artistic displays, each one feeling like it could be plucked from the front doorsteps of today's tech tyrants.
It’s hard to put into words exactly what’s even happening during some segments of the cinematography, but you’ll feel strangely suffocated and surprised by the lasting effect certain images will leave on your mind and sensibilities.
On the basis of story, the series begins a bit slowly, unfolding its narrative on a careful basis that may confuse some in the beginning but develops with much more rapidity as the true scope of the central conflict begins to reveal itself. We gain a small inkling of the nature behind the devs teams’ work in the opening credits of the second episode: a grainy, systematic projection of Jesus Christ hanging from the cross and Joan of Arc being burned at the stake – just for casually naming a few — but Garland perfectly manages to balance the mystery of why the project is so enigmatic and important while continuing to lay the groundwork for a larger reveal by the show’s penultimate episode.
These small bread crumbs that Garland scatters in turn lead us to question the concept of “free will” that the team, Forrest and even Lily herself slowly seek to unravel, never feeling overwrought with confusing side quests that have plagued other mystery-box shows in recent memory — here’s looking at you, “Westworld.” This corporate conspiracy thriller knows what it wants to be, and it more than delivers on the promise.
Far and away though, the performances carry the show even further than plot and visual choices, with Nick Offerman’s portrayal of the tech founder blowing away every other performer on the screen. You may know him as everyone’s favorite no-nonsense, government-despising libertarian Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation,” but Offerman proves he can trade his famous mustache for a blonde wig and existential thoughts with ease. His performance carries many of the same brooding, ominous elements that made the former character so successful, applying them towards the cynical attitudes of a man who is clearly a genius, but also completely broken inside.
Highlighted by one truly haunting scene wherein audiences learn the true motivation behind Forrest’s great push to fully unlock the potential of the free will project and you wouldn’t even think for a moment that this is the same guy who once had two ex-wives named Tammy. Other notable series regulars include Alison Pill (“The Newsroom”), who portrays Forrest’s monotoned second in-command Katie, and character actor Zach Grenier (any season of CSI, Law & Order or any crime procedural over the past 20 years), who portrays Amaya’s menacing head of security, Kenton. Each deliver a number of monologues that would make anyone watching want to curl up in a ball and question the nature of their reality too. Even Mizuno, whose wooden acting style fits her character’s personality and descent into confusion quickly — feels like she’s earned the opportunity to chew scenery. After supporting roles in Garland’s previous film work and her supporting role in Netflix’s similarly confusing 2018 show “Maniac”, she fits into the role of Lily with an ease I didn’t anticipate before the show began. The cast as a whole is expertly crafted and perfectly suited for the material, and everyone delivers on the sense of unrelenting anxiety and the nature of the dev teams’ work that the story gives.
“Devs” cannot be explained merely with words — it has to be consumed, peeled back one layer at a time and enveloped for the viewer to grasp the “big picture” of what Garland is trying to say. Huge fans of high-minded science fiction will find themselves in love with the show from the very beginning, and even those who don’t should stick around for the experience of being completely confused yet utterly entranced. While we have few other causes to look forward to in our pandemic society — we can rest easy knowing we’re not being chased by our crazy bosses for sneaking around the office.
Should you choose to dive into everything behind “Devs”? Or was it already predetermined before you sat down on the couch for the 30th day in a row? Either way, Alex Garland’s show will be the best combination of great storytelling elements, visual choices and prestige-level work you will find so far this year — that’s a given.
You can find the first seven episodes of “Devs” available for streaming on FX on Hulu right now, and — if you’re feeling ambitious — the eighth and final episode of the series arrives on April 15.