For a cautionary tale about not seeing the trees for the forest, “Devs” wields a powerful hallucinatory effect. Methodically paced and meticulously built, Alex Garland’s latest hard stare into the tech world’s black moral abyss can feel like you’re caught in a loop, overhearing engineers repeat the same ominous jargon and catching a glimpse of the same giant doll hovering over Silicon Valley’s redwoods. (Yes, a doll. This five-story tall thing is absolutely terrifying, and yet I already wish she was staring through my office window.)
The setting, the subject, the show — it’s all a bit cultish, both in the intensely eerie religious parallels the story evokes and in the cult fandom most likely to appreciate another of Garland’s mind-bending projects. The writer-director pulled double duty on every episode of “Devs,” and he remains in the same esoteric territory that divided “Annihilation’s” audience, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, all of the above are very good things that make up a very good show. Just like the halos floating above Nick Offerman’s head, the first FX on Hulu series can really glow — and when it does, you won’t be able to look away.
“Devs'” ever-shifting road starts with Sergei, played by Karl Glusman, an artificial intelligence coder who’s predictive algorithm has earned him a big meeting with the boss. As Amaya CEO Forest (Offerman) shovels handfuls of green leaves into his mouth, Sergei shows him how his team’s latest breakthrough can predict a single-celled organism’s next fives seconds of movement. Though Sergei & Co. look a bit embarrassed that they can’t forecast any further ahead, Forest is sold. He offers Sergei a coveted role in the company’s advanced development division, simply referred to as Devs.
Everyone at Amaya wants to know what the devs team is working on and no one does. (I’d argue the bigger mystery is the giant doll lording over the company compound, but whatever.) As Sergei (and thus the audience) gets clued in to what’s going on in the isolated building on the edge of campus, secrets of all sorts start to spill out — government oversight is threatened, flashbacks (that aren’t really flashbacks) expose employees’ personal motivations, and someone is murdered. (Dun dun DUN!)
From there, “Devs” keeps you on your toes. Sonoya Mizuno’s Lily Chan, a software developer at Amaya and Sergei’s girlfriend, takes on a bigger role, as do Sergei’s new co-workers; Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is an aging genius, excited to be working on the cutting edge and suspicious of those too young to respect how deep it can cut; Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) is exactly the young, brilliant developer Stew’s worried about, and Katie (Alison Pill) has to keep them both in line, along with the rest of the devs’ team, in order to fulfill Forest’s vision.
Each member of the ensemble has their time to shine; Spaeny is a find, and Pill finds unexpected warmth in her icy, menacing right-hand woman. Offerman, though, is the standout. Grounded by deep-rooted pain and guided by an identifiable human urge, Offerman still makes Forest into a believable messiah; maybe it’s just the long hair, mysterious intentions, and casual assertion of power, but Forest feels like the rare, well-rounded tech millionaire who isn’t a one-dimensional monster hiding behind forward-facing good intentions. I don’t believe he’s stuffing his face with leafy greens because he wants to look like an environmentally friendly vegan; I think he is an environmentally friendly vegan. But he’s also capable of very bad things, which Offerman conducts with equally unnerving nonchalance.
That’s a bit opaque (especially for anyone who’s seen the trailer, which gives away a bit more than I’d prefer), but like “Devs” itself, it’s opaque with purpose. “Devs” is both a mystery worth unraveling and inherently enigmatic. Garland’s story requires the audience to make certain leaps to keep up; the atmosphere feeds the narrative and vice versa (which can become frighteningly evident with every sharp note from The Insects, Ben Salisbury, and Geoff Barrow’s alarming score). At times, what’s happening is as clear as the vivid, hard-lined production design used to bring the devs’ building to life. Other scenes are as obscured as the hazy, largely empty San Francisco streets. Like all great mysteries, you’ll know what you need to know to remain invested in what happens next.
If any of that makes “Devs” sound like a lot, well, it is — a lot of theorizing, a lot of abstract conversations, a lot of time-shifting — but it’s also one of Garland’s more emotionally vulnerable and accessible parables. Yes, the hourlong episodes could be described using every critic’s favorite code word for “tedious” (“It’s a slow burn!”), but lulling viewers into submission is just one part of Garland’s plan. Jarring twists and turns break up and enhance the eerie tone, as the conspiracy-thriller deftly incorporates chase scenes, murder investigations, and love stories to its tech-heavy story. Garland uses his time wisely, and his beautiful vision of a ghastly future is undeniably insightful. Some of its ideas may not be welcome — they sure as shit aren’t comforting — but “Devs” sticks with you, whether you want it to or not.
“Devs” premieres its first two episodes Thursday, March 5 on Hulu, as part of the FX on Hulu partnership. New episodes will premiere via the streaming service every Thursday. “Devs” will not air on FX’s linear platform.