Any taxonomy of television would need an entire kingdom just for bad TV. There’s bad TV that’s carelessly made, like a sheep with three hooves and a slapped-on beak. There’s bad TV that’s intentionally bad, schlocky and garish, like a sheep with magenta-dyed fleece. And then there’s bad television that’s striving to be great, that’s got ideas and style but sinks under the weight of its own oversize ambition—a sheep with a 50-pound weight tied to its forelegs and dropped in a river. Alex Garland’s Devs, a philosophically minded, prestige sci-fi cock-up airing on FX on Hulu (so, airing on Hulu with FX branding) belongs to this last species—except in Devs, multiple versions of the same sheep inhabit multiple realities. It sinks like a stone in every single one.
Garland, who wrote and directed every episode of Devs, previously wrote and directed Annihilation, a sonic connection to which you can hear in Devs’ opening moments. Each episode begins with an eerie drone, gonging over otherwise silent images of the cast meaningfully staring at things. People portentously staring—or, in one instance, silently tossing a plate at a wall—is on my “oh, please, no” bingo card, so I won’t pretend that Devs and I got off on the right foot. And since humorlessness and seriosity—like, intoning Yeats levels of seriosity—are also on my bingo card, we never worked it out, though over the course of its eight episodes I did come to believe that, while absolutely none of it worked for me, much of what Devs was doing it was doing on purpose.
The show is made with so much care, sci-fi exposition, and cash—the supercomputer at the center looks like an art deco chandelier!—that its willfully hermetic, claustrophobic vibe; its fussy but swanning beauty; its dramatically deflating structure; and its contained-to-the-point-of-flatness performances must all be intentional, tuned as they are to the show’s central idea about the finite nature of the infinite. But all this control squeezes the life out of everything. The show is what it wants to be, but what it wants to be put me in mind of the big whiffs of the immediate post-Sopranos era, a hefty, pretentious, high-profile exercise in trying to make you Google de Broglie–Bohm theory.
Devs concerns itself with a young woman named Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) who works for Amaya, a quantum computing giant that has surpassed Facebook and Twitter and Google in Silicon Valley supremacy. Lily, low-key and androgynous, is the type of character whom other characters are constantly saying is singular and exceptional, a woman who does things differently, though that’s mostly expressed by her tendency to use windows instead of front doors. Lily lives with her boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman), a Russian engineer who also works at Amaya. Every morning they step over the homeless man who lives on their San Francisco doorstep to take the company bus out to the valley.
This setup might suggest that Devs is interested in modern-day tech companies and the anthropology of their social milieu. It’s not. Its climactic insight on this subject is that tech CEOs have too much power—“You know the problem with people who own tech companies? They have too much power. They become messiahs”—which it shares twice, treating it like a revelation each time instead of a San Francisco fortune cookie. The would-be messiah of Amaya is its shaggy-headed beardo of a CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman), a man driven by a personal tragedy announced by the lifelike megastatue of his daughter that towers over the campus named for her. (The statue is further evidence of the show’s general disinterest in actual tech companies: In this age of polished industrial design, none of them would ever plant a 10-story garden gnome with wax museum energy in their front yard.)
Outwardly, Amaya is your standard world-conquering tech outfit, but its hundreds of employees obscure its real purpose, which is known only to the small handful of people involved with the company’s top-secret Devs team. Early on, Sergei is invited to join Devs after giving a presentation to Forest and his right-hand woman Katie (Alison Pill), in which he is able to accurately predict the future behavior of a simple organism. (Forest chomps on raw spinach during the presentation, a techlord with the swagger to eat like a cow, which is about as funny as Devs gets) After 30 seconds, though, the model falls apart: There’s too much data, too much complexity, and the numbers “go insane.” Or maybe, Sergei theorizes, “it’s a quantum-type problem.” Somewhere in the multiverse is an organism that’s behaving exactly as they predicted—it’s just not this universe. “Not a fan of the multiverse theory,” Forrest replies. Is your Reddit sense tingling yet?
It should be. Devs’ best quality is that it will inspire a thriving community of people geeking out about it on the internet—people who will likely work as a ventilator for the show itself, making it seem more alive than it is. (In this, and so many other things, it has a lot of overlap with HBO’s Westworld, another sci-fi show about humans’ limited capacity to change, but one that’s at least real enough to admit technocrats seeking absolute power might be motivated by self-interest, and not “trauma.”) The series concerns itself with all sorts of ideas, scientific and philosophical, that are fun to think and theorize about, while being, itself, no fun at all. Unlike Garland’s other previous directorial effort, the zingily plotted and spacily stylish exploration of artificial intelligence and sex robots, Ex Machina, Devs has no spark. It has no moment anywhere close to being as creepy, strange, funny, or threatening as an Oscar Isaac dance sequence, even if Garland did recast Isaac’s dance partner as Devs’ lead. (In the one scene where she gets to let loose, she’s great.) What it has instead is a good brainteaser, a sci-fi philosophy mashup: What if the multiverse were real, but also deterministic? What if the world that was constantly branching out into different realities showed us that we tend to do the same thing in every one, turning back on ourselves like so many ingrown toes?
Shortly after being promoted to the Devs team, Sergei disappears, and Lily is left to figure out what happened to him, turning for help to her lovelorn ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha, definitely the best thing about the show). Lily doesn’t know what happened to Sergei, but we do. Garland has made a choice to have the audience inhabit a kind of all-seeing position—which, like so much about Devs, is structurally elegant but dramatically inert. It puts us in the same position as, say, a tech team that has designed a supercomputer so powerful that it can see the past and all possible futures, a clever bit of mirroring. But it also leads to multiple sequences in which Lily is just catching up to what we already know, recapitulations that are passed off like moments of tension but have all the suspense of a “previously on … ” intro.
Over and over again, Devs’ characters are informed that, no matter how hard they fight it, they are going to end up doing the same thing they were going to do, or already have. Instead of fighting anyway, they accept it. It’s as if Oedipus responded to the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother by saying: “Oof. You sure? I guess I’ll just go do that.” Obviously, that’s the stuff of tragedies that have lasted for thousands of years. By the time someone really tries to break out of what has been preordained, they accomplish it with so much ease that the moment, meant to be remarkable, falls flat: This whole free will thing doesn’t seem that hard—maybe someone should have tried it sooner.
But Devs is the kind of show that’s immune, in some ways, to criticism. On the one hand, it’s a big mood; on the other, it’s a logic puzzle. You feel it and then, if you keep watching, you’ll find yourself trying to solve it, even if that means picking at it. Why would a company hire a corporate spy if it could see the past and the future? Why would two people privately argue about firing someone they already knew they had fired? You could take these questions to r/devs, or you could answer them for yourself.