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Wednesday, 15 April 2020

REVIEW: Devs - An experience that needs to be seen to be explained.

On the business side of things, Devs is the flagship show for the “FX on Hulu” enterprise, launching just under a year after Disney purchased 21st Century Fox and gained a majority stake in Hulu.

FX on Hulu is one of the more pleasant outcomes of the growing Disney entertainment monopoly. FX spent much of the 2010s putting out some of the most critically acclaimed shows on the air (The Americans, Atlanta, Fargo, Better Things, Archer, You’re The Worst, Justified, and *gulp* Louie).

But the network was stuck in the past — its streaming service FXNOW was buggy at best and there was no other unified library to watch everything.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that Devs is important. FX is likely the most prestigious television property that Disney owns and, by combining it with a competent streaming service like Hulu, is on the verge of being introduced to a larger audience. That is if Devs is successful.


Devs is a sci-fi miniseries completely written and directed by Alex Garland, best known for his two sci-fi features Ex Machina and Annihilation. Like those two films, The series tackles massive ideas about humanity’s place in the natural world, fate and free will, and the existential changes that are being brought about by technological advances.

The show is as serious and weighty as it sounds, wrapped in haunting imagery. The tech company the story takes place in and around is a giant monument of concrete and glass that reflects the lush forest that surrounds it.

The quantum computer that powers the development branch of the company (“devs” for short) is cloaked in shimmering gold scales that slowly pulse with light.


And I’d be remiss to not mention the towering statue of the company’s namesake — Amaya, daughter of the company’s founder (Nick Offerman) — that watches over everything that happens on campus.

The score, from frequent collaborators Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, is equally chilling — toggling between inhuman synth, choral chanting, and pop music that would sound upbeat if it was laid over anything else.

The results are nothing short of immersive. Devs is a vibe of a television show, one that fills you with something you can’t quite describe but feel profoundly and unmistakably. Garland is a master of filling his audience with the experience of stumbling into these ideas, pushing the right buttons to make you feel like an insignificant cog of a larger, existential machine.

And that is very unusual for television. Art about weighty, inaccessible ideas and sensation is often reserved for film, and there’s a reason for that. The sheer mass and length of a television story lends itself well to be rooted in a character-based experience. The show can be just as much about exploring their inner psyche as it is about experiencing their life along with them.

In general, film is shorter and more pointed. It can get in, raise a question, and get out. It puts the onus of grappling with those ideas on its audience. TV can do that too, of course (thinking now of my favourite television show The Leftovers), but film is especially equipped to tell stories in this way.

You can feel this tension between the cinematic instincts of Garland rubbing up against the conventions of television storytelling in Devs. The show’s dialogue is difficult to make sound natural — something seldom noticed on the first watch of a movie, but something that becomes increasingly clear as you enter hour 5 or 6 of a series. Its characters can feel equally flat, as Garland tends to see them as tools for the big concepts he wants to explore, rather than the reverse.

Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman are doing admirable work as series leads Lily and Forest respectively but, with something as weighty and relatively devoid of humour, it can be difficult to seem like tangible people. Alison Pill suffers from a similar problem as Forest’s right-hand woman.


The exceptions are in the rich cast of supporting characters — Jamie (Jin Ha), Kenton (Zach Grenier), Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) and Sergei (Karl Glusman) — who are allowed to react to the events of the show rather than forced to explain its scientific jargon.

Still, dichotomous ideas as weighty as determinism/free will and nature/artificiality have no underlying answers, and the only way to come to any understanding of them is to sit with them, uncomfortably, for hours on end. This is TV’s secret weapon — time — one that can be used to delve into the unique perspective or, in this case, to meditate on complicated ideas that can only be explored through hours of experiencing them.

Devs exists at an interesting collision point of so many different forces. It’s the flagship show for a traditional network’s break into the world of streaming. It’s an 8-hour film masquerading as a miniseries because it needs the tools only television can provide. It’s free will and fate. It’s natural and artificial.

So what is Devs? You kind of have to experience it to find out.

Contributed by Skip Intro

Devs continues Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9.00pm on BBC Two or is available in its entirety on BBC iPlayer.

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