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Alex Garland's Devs is an ambitious kind of bad TV

  • "Any taxonomy of television would need an entire kingdom just for bad TV," says Willa Paskin. "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." Paskin adds: "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 might have been better off as another Alex Garland movie: "Somewhere in Devs, there are relevant lessons to be learned about the misuse of technology and the age-old conflict between predestiny and free will, subjects that have been explored in cautionary sci-fi tales since the genre was invented," says Jen Chaney. "But this series is so hard to, pardon the pun, decode that any of its deeper meanings get lost. I spent a lot of my time watching Devs wondering if this would have been better as Alex Garland’s third feature film as writer and director instead of an episodic drama. Because in this form, it’s like a piece of Play-Doh that’s been stretched as wide as it will go, threatening to completely fall apart."
    • Devs is best described as "incredibly Alex Garland-esque": "It's haunting and hypnotic, a show of marrow-seeping mood and a unity of vision that carries through every frame," says Daniel Fienberg. "If it also turns a corner from entrancingly opaque to a bit on-the-nose by the end, for fans of Garland's Ex Machina and Annihilation, chances are that you'll be too absorbed to be bothered."
    • Devs isn't exactly a thriller, but it's simply unnerving: The Alex Garland series is "a bold concept, about the perils of scientific breakthroughs that might change everything, or nothing, with inherent warnings about mankind trifling with forces beyond its understanding," says Brian Lowry. "It's a familiar premise, but calibrated her to the latest concerns about billionaires with messiah complexes and technology run amok. The eight-episode story doesn't move fast, exactly, but it's consistently visually arresting and weird -- in a Twin Peaks kind of way."
    • Devs will appeal to those viewers who gravitate toward Westworld but prefer a show that’s only about 25% as confusing: "'What is Devs?' is a question that permeates throughout the entire series, and this self-referential echoing will be one of several things that people will either adore or find pretentious," says Kimberly Ricci. "The show’s central strength, other than Garland’s fingerprints, would be two lead actors who will knock your socks off. The most mainstream of the pair would be Nick Offerman. You’re familiar with his work, and of course, folks always think about Ron Swanson... In Devs, Offerman surfaces in a dramatic role that showcases his versatility...The other lead is a familiar face to Garland fans. Sonoya Mizuno portrayed the stoically dancing sex robot to Oscar Isaac’s messiah-obsessed genius in Ex Machina."
    • Devs feels like something completely different from a TV show: "Stanley Kubrick is to Devs as David Fincher is to Mr. Robot: a reference point to which the show is either a shallow ripoff or a careful homage, depending on the eye of the beholder," says Alison Herman. "Surrounding the Devs facility with 2001-style obelisks and slipping in a flashback to the prehistoric past, Garland makes the influence clear enough that I lean toward homage. Regardless, Devs is the kind of show that will quickly overplay its hand with those not inclined to indulge its excesses. The dialogue is overwrought, stuffed with portentous discussions of determinism and autonomy. The themes are obvious. ('You know the problem with people who run tech companies? They have too much power!') Someone literally recites Yeats’s The Second Coming over a climactic scene. On the other hand, when the story is so blatantly spelled out, it frees up mental real estate for the mind-bending visuals. The result is easy to dismiss as rips bong stoner psychedelia, and easy to embrace as the same."
    • Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman are miscast on Devs: "Mizuno, who made her feature debut in Ex Machina, has a stark, distinctive look, and her background as a model gives her a confident physical presence," says Benjamin Lee. "But as an actor, she’s utterly, uncomfortably, vacant. Garland’s script constantly tells us how special, unique, strong, resourceful and determined Lily is, but Mizuno is such an absent performer, trying and struggling to muster up even the basest of human emotions, and so a great deal of energy is sucked out by her scenes, of which there are a great deal. Offerman is similarly miscast. As an actor known for more comic roles, he fails to add the commanding gravitas a figure like Forrest requires. It’s a one-note performance played to death; I often wondered how two better equipped actors could have transformed the show."
    • Devs will make you think about the ethical implications of technology in the same way Westworld and Black Mirror do: "It's difficult not to see the fast-paced, tech-dependent, uber-connected world we live in reflected in Devs, even if the show is completely unhurried and frustratingly slow sometimes," says Patricia Puentes. "And even though its characters use technology in a much more contained way than most of us. They have cellphones, laptops and AirPods but aren't constantly hooked to their devices the way so many humans are."
    • Devs resembles an Alfred Hitchcock movie: "If Ex Machina, about a femme fatale android and the dupe who loves her, was essentially a James M. Cain thriller — Double Indemnity for robots — Devs has the bones of a Hitchcock thriller, with Lily the average Jane sucked into its orderly chaos," says Robert Lloyd. "Though where Hitchcock relied on the MacGuffin, the meaningless central device that excites the characters and drives the plot, Garland is fully invested in the implications of his thought-experiment gizmos."
    • Devs is a stunning viewing experience with a frustrating plot: "Based on the three advance episodes I’ve seen, Garland’s singular vision is in full effect — Devs contains some of the most stunning imagery I’ve seen on TV in recent years — but unfortunately, the story gets stuck at the starting gate, bogged down by dense tech jargon and a frustratingly cryptic conspiracy plot," says Dave Nemetz. "To be fair, Ex Machina and Annihilation were plenty dense and cryptic, too, but both films rewarded our patience with gorgeous visuals and thought-provoking insights about the intersection of humanity and technology. Devs has the visuals down pat, to be sure, but the insight is lacking. It has Garland’s signature chilly and cerebral tone, but the pacing is sluggish. (It feels at times like a two-hour movie idea that got stretched out to fill eight hours.) And while the characters in Garland’s films helped us connect to the brainy material on a human level, Devs‘ characters just aren’t sharply drawn enough to make us care."
    • Devs pales when compared to Westworld: "To draw a comparison: Even a defender of Westworld, a far more curious and artful show about similar issues of global upheaval, can acknowledge the degree to which the show is overstuffed with ideas, with character and incident," says Daniel D'Addario. "This may be one’s taste or not, but the show is perpetually the most TV even when not the best, an attempt at mirroring, and then diagnosing, a chaotic moment that I find moving. Devs feels wan and undernourished by comparison, a show whose central characters have plainspoken single objectives at odds with one another, expressed in blunt utilitarian language and in the absence of compelling visual metaphor. The park the Devs occupy features trees surrounded by levitating lit halos, as if to provide some sense that this was the future, and a giant sculpture of a child, a clue to one of the show’s big mysteries. These are the big set pieces, along with a horizontal elevator of sorts that recalls the angular mansion of Ex Machina, but the show otherwise feels unadorned in a manner that suggests less 'the way we live now' than an unwillingness to push towards a more visually compelling place."
    • Devs is immensely enjoyable, despite its flaws: "Amid the glut of prestige TV, it turns out that a smart, experimental sci-fi show that knows entertainment value and depth aren’t mutually exclusive still feels like something special," says Judy Berman, adding that Garland has the courage to confront his "heady, brain-warping ideas" head-on, "resorting to neither the gratuitously gamified narrative of Westworld or Black Mirror’s sensationalism."
    • Garland creates a trippy screen vocabulary to communicate his scope: "The series has a Mr. Robot suspicion of capitalist power, a Westworld fascination with free will and a blacker-than-Black Mirror fear that digital utopias can be infected with hellish malware. But Garland’s distinctive voice keeps whispering through those corporate-campus trees," says James Poniewozik. He adds: "Even through the slow stretches and occasional pretentiousness, I loved the sensual experience of Devs; it was like a spa visit for my eyes and ears. For an ideas guy, Garland is an especially strong visual storyteller."
    • There’s a surprising amount of overlap between Devs and the masterful second season of The OA: "Its Silicon Valley setting, its acknowledgment of homelessness (a rarity on American TV), its deeper philosophical conceits, and even coincidental details like casting British actress Liz Carr in a similar expository role," says Gavia Baker-Whitelaw. "Fortunately, it doesn’t feel like a rehash, because while Devs and The OA cover some of the same territory, they travel in opposite directions. The OA has a New Age sensibility, with a more fantastical tone and a hopeful message about people overcoming trauma by embracing emotional vulnerability and working together. Both stories are tense and character-driven, but 'hopeful' really isn’t a word you’d use to describe Alex Garland’s work. Occasionally funny, sure. Beautiful in a shiver-down-your-spine kind of way, yes. But optimistic? Not so much."
    • The sheer form of Devs is so dazzling, so hypnotic, that the plot can feel almost besides the point
    • Devs shot its on-location scenes in the San Francisco Bay Area, but mostly filmed in a studio in Manchester, England
    • Sonoya Mizuno on her Devs role: "The first thing I read was the first two scripts, and already I could see she was going to go on this incredible journey of emotional, intellectual and physical challenges," she says. "And it felt like a real creative challenge and an actor’s dream job. I could already see there were these very human stories elegantly in play with these big ideas, and so apart from Alex being a draw, the scripts and the characters were equally a draw. The trajectory that it goes on was embedded in the first couple of scripts, and I could tell it was going to be really interesting. And the more I read, the more I was like, 'F*cking hell.'"
    • Nick Offerman on playing a long-haired mad scientist: "We got to create this guy from full cloth, which is invariably more fun,” he says. “So I was never called upon to do any of the things that we see those characters do, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Elon Musk: I didn’t have to give a TED Talk in the series, I didn’t have to reveal the latest iPod. Instead, I just had to deal with these more personal and semi-domestic scenarios. Alex and I collaborated on coming up with what this guy looks like, and the stasis that his life is in since he suffered a trauma a few years earlier. It sort of put his life on hold, into this paused stasis. That was where a lot of our conversation came in: Here are the parts of his life that he is now completely unconcerned with, because he now has a singular focus on resolving this trauma that has befallen him. That was kind of the source for answering a lot of those personal questions.”
    • Alex Garland says filming Devs gave him the creative freedom he's never had before: “There were two things going on," he says. "One is that my route into filmmaking, oddly, was writing novels. And there’s something about television, I think because it’s long-form. Films are basically like short stories or novellas, and television shows are more like novels. And so there was something actually that felt very familiar about it to me, having that amount of space for characterization and plot...Every episode, when I’d start it, I’d be in a slightly different headspace or mood. And so the episodes are often quite different from each other. They structurally or tonally function in very different ways. All I can say is it really suited me and I enjoyed it."
    • Garland made Devs to show why tech CEOs won't save us
    • Garland relied on HBO's The Wire in making his first TV show: "The learning curve on this was particularly steep, because it was very different from anything I’d done before,” Garland says. “And so I found myself watching a lot of TV, trying to figure out how other people did it...I was really interested in some of the structural things about how The Wire works. It became almost intimidating because it’s so good and so smart...What The Wire demonstrated to me was you can plan a long way ahead. You can rely on (the audience’s) patience. You can rely on what they will follow and track and be willing to go down that path with you."

    TOPICS: Devs, FX on Hulu, Westworld, The Wire, Alex Garland, Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno