The first show produced under the “FX on Hulu” banner, “Devs,” is an eight-episode sci-fi techno-thriller miniseries that’s taken the pop-culture landscape by storm. In recent months the COVID-19 outbreak has been leaving many citizens stuck at home with little to do, and since then, streaming exclusive shows have been booming. Unfortunately, not all of them can reach the level of “Tiger King,” and “Devs” happens to be one that leaves more than a little to be desired.
Set in the near future, one of the biggest tech companies called Amaya, is working on something big. Employees Sergei, played by Karl Glusman, and girlfriend Lily, played by Sonoya Mizuno, are excited when the company’s CEO Forest — played by Nick Offerman — promotes Sergei to join their secret project “Devs.” However, Sergei never returns home from work that day and Lily becomes determined to find out what happened to him. So, in recruiting her ex-boyfriend Jamie — played by Jin Ha — the two head down a dangerous path of discovery toward the secrets both Sergei and Forest were hiding.
“Devs” was written and directed by Alex Garland, who previously wrote and directed the Academy Award-winning “Ex Machina” and the critically acclaimed box office flop “Annihilation.” Unfortunately, much of the execution of “Devs” echoes that from the latter rather than the former. Meaning, if you actually invest your time to watch it, you’d better be ready for a long, slow show that’s heavy on philosophy but lacking in actual entertainment.
It turns out the “Devs” in the show are developing a computer program that allows them to see into the past, and with some tweaking, may be able to let them visualize the future. This sets up the central theme Garland is attempting to explore, that notions of free will are an illusion. The enigmatic company CEO Forest is so blatantly set up as a man playing God it makes you cringe — from the shaggy bearded Godlike look to a painfully obvious symbolic shot in which his head is framed in front of a halo-shaped light.
Forest is stuck dwelling on the past after the untimely death of his wife and daughter in a car accident, leading him to want this project made and a personal obsession over predestination. The conversations regarding this subject are at times interesting, but ultimately self-contradictory. He claims the universe does indeed have infinite alternate variations of everything, but everything is also deterministic. So, which is it? Was Garland counting on the audience not understanding what the characters were talking about, thus assuming their dialogue was legitimate and profound?
From the beginning of the series, it’s evident that it will include three things: obnoxious music, numerous pointless establishing shots of San Francisco, and emotionally muted performances. The former may be my subjective view —perhaps it’s just not my style. The second is merely one symptom of the series’ glacially slow pace, in which it takes forever for the story to move forward.
For the latter, one would expect this is largely owed to Garland since he wrote and directed the project, ostensibly meaning he’s in full control of what we’re seeing. Yet “Devs” features some of the worst writing and most wooden performances I’ve seen from a big-budget television show in a long time. The leads Mizuno and Ha anchor most of the series, and it could be the writing making them so shallow, but they have no chemistry and stand as questionable choices for such crucial roles. Offerman is also miscast, a fine dramatic and comedic actor but simply not suited for the character.
Another of the series’ numerous problems involves its structure. There is no mystery regarding what happened to Sergei since it’s shown in the first episode, and overall its plot feels like it would fill a two-hour film nicely but instead was stretched out to six. This strikes as strange since the opening episode teases numerous themes that are never developed upon, like income inequality, xenophobia, the encroaching role of technology in our daily lives, or the role of the government regulating tech giants like these. Instead, we watch dull characters prattle on about predetermination with an occasional visual marvel to wake us up.
Pretentious, obvious, and too drawn out to keep your interest, “Devs” shares many problems with Garland’s last film “Annihilation” — ambitious and swinging for the fences, but striking out and falling on its face. Coupled with the eight-episode runtime, you’re waiting a heck of a long time before anything remotely interesting happens. “Devs,” ironically enough, fails to develop in a meaningful way, and by the end, you’re wishing you had the free will never to spend your time watching it in the first place.
Star Rating: Two stars
- Some interesting visuals.
- Delves into deep themes, like free will.
- Occasional good performances.
- Glacial pace.
- Poor acting for most of the cast, but that may have been the bad direction and script.