Anyone who’s seen Ex Machina and Annihilation, the two feature films from acclaimed English filmmaker Alex Garland, will be more than familiar with the hallmarks of the writer/director’s distinctive style. Both projects feature piercingly stunning visuals, inventively futuristic set designs and unsettling, eerie scores – all in service of ambitious, cerebral sci-fi storytelling. In Devs – Garland’s first effort for the small-screen – all this and more is on offer once again, in what is surely one of the year’s boldest and most inventive pieces of television so far.
At the centre of the series is Lily Chan (Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno), a talented employee at Silicon Valley-based tech firm Amaya, whose life is thrown into disarray when her boyfriend Sergei is mysteriously killed shortly after he’s asked to join the highly secretive Devs programme by Amaya’s CEO, Forest (Nick Offerman). Although she is informed his death was a suicide, Lily remains unconvinced – enlisting Jamie, a cybersecurity specialist who is somewhat inconveniently her ex-boyfriend, to help unravel the mystery of Sergei’s demise.
In the investigation that follows, we delve deep into the mysterious goings-on inside the Devs lab, explore the tragic pasts of the show’s main characters, and ponder such weighty philosophical quandaries as the debate between free will and determinism. If that sounds like a lot, then be warned – Devs is not a programme which shys away from dealing with complex plot threads and serious ideas.
A show like this can be quite hard to pitch at the right level. The series needs to contain a healthy portion of intrigue while avoiding the sort of muddling incoherence that would turn viewers off, and needs to ensure a compelling story is told amid all the metaphysical ruminations. Yet as with his cinematic work, Garland largely straddles this line well: the series is a meditation on free will, sure, but first and foremost it is an engaging piece of drama that is always entertaining and often fascinating.
The most well-known face in the cast, Nick Offerman, is best known for his comedic work – notably as the iconic Ron Swanson on hit sitcom Parks and Recreation – but there’s little room for laughs here. Instead, Devs finds Offerman on more sombre form as the taciturn figure of Forest, a man who is haunted by his past and has developed a kind of Messiah Complex (right down to the long hair and beard) in his role as Amaya’s figurehead. That notion, of tech geniuses playing God, has cropped up in Garland’s work before and it’s never far from the surface here, with religious imagery prominent throughout. Forest might be a shady and sinister figure, but for the series to work we have to buy into and empathise with his motivations, and for the most part this is achieved – in no small part due to an excellently judged scene in the fifth episode in which we watch a tragic incident from Forest’s past unfold simultaneously with other, alternative futures.
Offerman is decent enough in the role, although perhaps it’d have been nice to see him utilise his comedic chops for the odd moment of levity. Some other performances are also admirable, with impressive turns from Alison Pill and Stephen McKinley Henderson, though in truth other aspects of the show standout rather more than the acting. The cinematography, for example, is splendid throughout, while the design of Amaya’s headquarters, especially the creepy statue of a young girl that looms overhead and the golden majesty of the Devs lab itself, is remarkably arresting. As for the music – I’d be surprised if any score this year can top the one on offer here: haunting and ominous, it helps create an uneasy sense of foreboding that pervades the entire series.
Devs is not entirely without faults. It’s easy, for example, to imagine some viewers taking against the series on the basis of its admittedly rather po-faced, portentous nature, while others may complain about the relatively slow pace at which the action unfolds. In fairness, it’s possible to imagine a version of this story that plays out as a two hour film rather than an eight-episode series, so perhaps accusations of indulgence aren’t entirely misplaced. However the serious, meditative approach the show adopts is actually largely a good fit, allowing the series’ themes and ideas a bit more room to breathe.
Not all the plot developments work – the occasional moments when the show flirts with becoming a more conventional spy thriller, for example – and it might also have benefited from having a more charismatic actor than Mizuno in the lead role. Such is the scale of the series’ ambitions, however, that it’s easy to forgive it a few missteps, especially given how well it manages to stick the landing. It’s refreshing to see a show that tries to do something as bold and idiosyncratic as this, and the fact that it by and large succeeds in those aims is certainly cause for praise. Devs might not be the very best show we see this year, it certainly won’t be the most flawless, but it is unique, intelligent and striking – and a worthy follow up to Garland’s cinematic efforts.
Devs is available to view in full on BBC iPlayer. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.