“Devs,” an eight-episode miniseries recently released by FX on Hulu, is the latest creation of Alex Garland, the writer and director behind the brilliant films “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation.”
Except, “Devs” is less of a TV show than it is a demonstration in philosophy (and a very basic crash course in quantum physics). It’s more principle than plotline. The show has the odd distinction of being simultaneously profoundly interesting and poorly crafted.
“Devs” follows a team of developers at a tech company run by the mysterious and ingenious Forest, wonderfully portrayed by Nick Offerman. He and his inner circle of the world’s best and brightest coders and quantum physicists work to develop a machine that uses prediction algorithms to view any point in the past or future. While the idea of a time-window may not be new to science-fiction, the show is unique in its explanation of the technology and the fact that it uses this as a foundation to ask its mind-bending, philosophical questions.
Unfortunately, Forest and his team are not the main characters of the show. That honor falls instead to Lily. Played by Sonoya Mizuno, who also had roles in both of Garland’s other works, Lily is a security software developer employed in a different division of Forest’s company who gets inadvertently drawn into a world of secrets and murder when her boyfriend is killed. Lily is the show’s biggest weak point, not because Mizuno delivers a poor performance, but because Garland simply doesn’t know what to do with her character.
In fact, he doesn’t know what to do with the plot in general. The flow and pacing of the series is atrocious. “Devs” opens with the murder of Lily’s boyfriend in the first episode and a tease of what Forest’s secret machine actually is. It sets up an intriguing mystery that tantalizes viewers with the promise of a long, slow, revelation-filled dive down a rabbit hole into the Devs project. But then Garland decides he doesn’t want to wait for the end of the series to start asking his philosophical questions (which doubtlessly served as the inspiration for the show in the first place), so he reveals the great mystery in the first minutes of episode two.
From there Lily continues to act as an audience stand-in normally would. She is unaware of the mysteries unfolding around her, but she is very motivated to unravel them. Yet, to get the audience thinking about what he wants us to think about, Garland has already given us all the answers. So instead of making shocking discoveries right alongside Lily, the audience watches the protagonist from three steps ahead, uninterestedly waiting for her to catch up.
Exciting and engaging scenes of technological development and philosophical debate among Forest, his team and his right hand Katie, played by Allison Pill, are interspersed with utterly boring obligatory scenes of Lily and her friends plodding along towards the conclusion, which is the only part of the show in which she plays a semi-interesting role.
The show’s bad guy, the completely underwritten, poorly performed Kenton, played by Zach Grenier, is a “tough-guy,” out of control lackey who serves as nothing more than a plot driver. He has no motivation, no logic, and is irredeemable and just plain boring. But beyond that, Kenton’s greatest sin is that he removes the mantle of antagonist from Forest, where it belongs. Garland can’t commit to making his Nathan Bateman lookalike a sympathetic villain. Kenton softens Forest, takes most of the blame off of him, and in the process dilutes Garland’s message.
“Devs” would have made a better film than show. A shorter format would have eliminated the need to force an uninteresting protagonist and over-extended, half-assed mystery into the piece and instead allowed Garland to focus exclusively on his fleshed-out characters and his concept.
When focused on asking profound questions and developing the important characters, the show is excellent. It’s the in-between bits that make this series just a little difficult to get through.