This Devs review contains no spoilers.
Devs, the tense, dense television miniseries from Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), is the series for anyone who has ever devoted party chatter to pondering whether we live in a computer simulation, or whether aliens visited ancient civilizations. Over the course of eight episodes, it rewards this interrogation of our world with endless thought experiments about cause and effect, and an unflinching observation of how even the most world-changing technology will be utilized for one person’s selfish aims.
Devs is the kind of series that does not necessarily benefit from a non-spoiler review because there is so much to be discussed and debated… but until it premieres on March 5, it puts your reviewer in the difficult position of knowing more than you do. I can say that you will want to binge it and be unable to (it will air weekly), and you will find yourself in fierce debate just like the Devs employees. Nick Offerman will make you cry. Certain sequences will make you feel insignificant, or incredibly powerful.
So, what can we tell you? Before we get to Devs, we start with Amaya, millionaire Forest’s (Offerman) Silicon Valley tech company named after his dead daughter. Despite the “Your Quantum Future” tagline, Amaya’s actual societal function is unclear. It’s not as ubiquitous as Facebook, nor as omnipotent as Amazon, yet it still commands the admiration of outsiders and the trusting loyalty of its employees, from coder Sergei (Karl Glusman) and his software engineer girlfriend Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) to Forest’s right-hand woman Katie (Alison Pill) and head of security Kenton (Zach Grenier).
What we do know is that Amaya the company possesses enough clout to inhabit acres of land that includes a sprawling campus and a tucked-away private forest. And watching over everything, from every screensaver to a creepy stories-tall statue, is Amaya herself. It’s the kind of self-indulgent demonstration of a father’s unimaginable loss that almost shades into satire, until you later learn the specifics of the day that changed the trajectory of Forest’s future.
Sergei gains access into the inner sanctum of Devs, a special project so sensitive that he cannot even tell Lily about it—Lily, who encourages this secrecy. But when Sergei goes missing after his first day, Lily follows the mystery of Devs to its core, interrogating everything she knows about fate and free will.
It takes a while—for Lily, at least. We are granted access with Sergei, and so know exactly what it is that Lily is pursuing, through memories and mathematical sequences, long before she does. And it’s a good secret, one that will make you gasp at its audacity and potential. But Devs tries so hard to be a tech thriller that its MacGuffin loses valuable screentime to repeated explanations of it rather than delving into its potential uses.
The slow pace of the early episodes are almost entirely forgiven once you get to the truly arresting visuals of the latter half of the series, and how they recontextualize our world. (Almost—they could have gotten there at least one episode sooner.) The heart of the story is completely Garland: cheeky, daring, passionately inquisitive, challenging its viewers.
Atmospherically, it also has the writer-director’s stamp. Devs really inhabits present-day San Francisco in all its problematic contradictions: the tight, bustling mazes of residential neighborhoods and Amaya’s indulgent stretch over acres of land. Lily’s dreamy apartment (that we learn she kept through a major break-up, because she would’ve been a fool to give it up) and the homeless guy who spends all day on her stoop like an amiable, transient doorman—an acknowledgement of the shocking disparities in Bay Area housing thanks to its tech-centric population.
But you can only have so many soaring aerial shots of San Francisco, or shots of Forest’s strikingly decorated redwoods, before you start itching to get back to Devs and stare at its secret. Time away from Devs rarely feels as important as time spent at Devs.
After her stoic performance as Kyoko in Ex Machina, Mizuno is owed a shot at the protagonist role. But as Lily is just one cog in the Devs machine—a machine we the viewers have seen all angles of—she falls short of the plot’s self-fulfilling prophecy casting her as a major player. The problem with having Lily chase after the mystery of Devs that we’ve already had revealed is that we watch her get caught up with information that’s new to her but that does not enhance the knowledge we already possess.
If Devs had limited its scope to just the workplace, and really played to the secretive, claustrophobic nature of Amaya’s insular little club, it could have been more effective. Because the enigmatic device is nothing without its observers. In addition to Forest and Katie, there’s the odd couple of bright-eyed wunderkind Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) and world-weary, classics-quoting Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson), bantering across the generations between them. Though it becomes clear that Devs’ devotees do not actually affect the machine they guard, simultaneously this particular sequence of events would not occur without them.
Offerman’s performance is the series’ most affecting, yet he doesn’t quite manage to elevate Forest beyond the archetype of a powerful entrepreneur obsessed with devoting all of his resources—from money to manpower—toward restoring the loss of a beloved child. He lacks the specificity of Garland’s best iteration of this character: the brutal, brilliant, unpredictably dancing Nathan (Oscar Isaac) in Ex Machina. If anything, the most interesting thing about Forest is that he’s not necessarily smarter than most of his employees at Amaya. As the miniseries begins building to its inevitable close, Stewart scathingly calls out “[s]uch big decisions being made about our future by people who know so little about our past.”
Speaking of the future, you and I can both agree that Devs will be so much more fun to discuss once you watch all of it.
Devs premieres March 5 on FX on Hulu.
Natalie Zutter still wishes there had been a dance sequence. Talk your favorite Alex Garland work with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!