Describe “Devs” however you’d like: It’s a meditation on the relationship between nature and technology. It’s a warning siren about the might of Big Data. It’s a love story. It’s a spy story. It’s a history lesson.
However you choose to categorize or absorb this new series, debuting as a flagship title March 5 in the new “FX on Hulu” partnership, making it was some of the most fun that Alex Garland has ever had as a writer and director.
“I haven’t always enjoyed filmmaking. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a project more than this one,” Garland told IndieWire. “Maybe ‘Ex Machina’ was on a par. The winds seemed to be in our sails. But this had with it a kind of creative freedom that I’d never experienced before.”
Like some of the more recognizable corners of Garland’s oeuvre, “Devs” is something of an enigma. Absent are the convenient markers of a traditional TV pilot, even as the opening episode employs one of the time-tested tropes of following a character’s first day on a new job. Sergei (Karl Glusman) is the newest member of the Devs team at Amaya, a tech company owned by Forest (Nick Offerman). After an unexpected turn of events, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) goes in search of her own answers about where Sergei’s work led.
One factor contributing to Garland’s enjoyment of the process is the wide real estate to develop this story. At eight episodes, “Devs” is Garland’s first TV project, bringing with it the most screen time that he’s had to work with. It also took him back to his unlikely filmmaking roots.
“There were two things going on. 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,” Garland said.
In that way, Garland was also able to preserve the episodic nature of the series. Lily’s quest gives “Devs” a recognizable throughline, but audiences will find that the path to any conclusion winds through some shifting atmospheres. As various characters cede ground and new puzzle pieces come into focus, there are some noticeable week-by-week shifts.
“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 said.
That extra space that Garland enjoyed extended to the “Devs” cast as well. With plenty of the show revolving around fundamental questions of human nature, the actors in the series had a longer-than-usual prep time with the script to help digest it all.
“I had it four months before, so I had a long time to prep,” Mizuno said. “We shot in Santa Cruz, then San Francisco, then London and Manchester. So we really had to have them all. It was a real gift, a real treat to work like that.”
“I’ve heard a lot about filmmakers that only dole out the information that’s necessary to your character,” Offerman said. “But I think that we necessarily had to have it all. Even with all eight scripts, it was still all I could do to wrap my head around where and how everything worked and where it all went.”
Garland’s storytelling style seems primed to turn audience members into the same kind of detective that Lily eventually becomes. Gathering clues, making sense of symbols explicit and otherwise, parsing out subtle messages underneath conversations: they’re all part of comprehending how these individual pieces come together. It’s a show likely to get picked apart and pored over in various places online. Even if some viewers might “solve” the central mysteries before the show reveals them in due time, Garland says that however people want to watch it is up to them.
“I think people can approach it in a way how they like. When you offer up a narrative, that’s the deal. We’ve all argued with friends about what happened within a novel. We both read the same novel, but we had our own responses. So that specific subjective response is part of it,” Garland said. “I also think something else happens. Even if you do figure it out, there’s a funny kind of amnesia when a story is being told. I can rewatch things and I know exactly what’s going to happen. But I sort of forget. You’re in a sort of suspended state between knowing and forgetting. So, in some respects, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.”
The first two episodes of “Devs” are now available via FX on Hulu. Additional episodes will premiere weekly on Thursdays.