‘Devs’ Wants to Unsettle You with that Déjà Vu Feeling

A new FX on Hulu TV series glances at a San Francisco that’s been eaten alive by the tech giants of Silicon Valley.

Devs wants to be the TV series that reflects our 21st century disaffections back to us. The writer and director of the show, Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), easily conjures up alienation as a mood. The camera cooly tracks the San Francisco skyline in the same way that it tracks the numbed-out expressions of the characters. But it’s the soundtrack that carries most of the emotional weight. Pounding forward, it suggests the presence of a juggernaut, one that’s made of silicon and steel. Technology is the alienating force in Devs, a rampaging machine that’s gone AWOL, distancing us from our neighbors as well as from ourselves.   

But after five of eight episodes (the finale airs on Thursday, April 16), Garland deepens the preternatural chill at a glacial pace. As a storyteller, he’s as meticulous as a clockmaker with the internal machinery of his fictional universe. It’s the overdetermined plot that’s leaving little room for the characters to develop. They’re frozen in place by the fate he wrote out for them on his laptop. They lack warmth, wit and human singularity. It’s hard to imagine anyone on screen doing laundry, spilling crumbs on the carpet or, for that matter, vacuuming them up. 

Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her boyfriend Sergei (Karl Glusman) work at Amaya, a Silicon Valley tech company that’s meant to resemble a Google or Facebook campus. Most of the scenes set there were shot at UC Santa Cruz. The cinematography accentuates the Lynchian strangeness of towering redwoods casting shadows against sleek glass and concrete buildings. Outwardly, the physical resemblance to a sprawling Silicon Valley company also suggests the buttoned-up psychic life of the place. If you’re as smart, hard-working and talented at coding as Lily and Sergei, you’ll find yourself set up to work inside California’s version of paradise. Unfortunately for them — and for the rest of us who are addicted to the region’s apps and products — they failed to notice that Forest (Nick Offerman), Amaya’s CEO, has veered far away from Google’s now-abandoned ethos: “Don’t be evil.” 

Amaya was the name of Forest’s daughter. She died before Devs begins and, just past the halfway point, we have a glimpse at the CEO’s personal history. Garland builds the doleful narrative around his loss. The camera often lingers on Forest mourning his daughter. To drive home how aggrieved he is, there’s also a Sphinx-sized statue of the girl that stands in the center of the campus. It’s an eerie figure that silently watches over everyone with the qualities of an omniscient god and a blank-eyed child’s doll.    

But I may be misinterpreting Forest’s motivation and mistaking the obvious for a red herring. The teaser for Episode 6 reads, “Lily and Jamie visit Forest looking for answers, and Katie reveals to Lily the true nature of the Devs system.” I suspect that Forest will reveal more details about his life’s work to Lily and her helpful ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha). For now, we’ve seen that the Devs system is a mystical portal that reveals a multiverse engineered by Amaya’s quantum physics geniuses. Lily and Sergei’s troubles begin when he’s promoted to this inner sanctum. To get there, he gives a winning presentation to Forest and his second in command Katie (a dour Alison Pill).

The Devs department is housed in a golden mausoleum with a floating elevator. It’s such an enlightened space that the developers work endless shifts, not knowing how many days or nights are passing. They contribute their knowledge to this centrifuge of power and are rewarded with breathtaking salaries. What that looks like for a viewer is a group of actors getting paid to stare at and be entranced by computer screens. These scenes are meant to be hypnotic. And they are for the first hour. After that, a monochromatic haze stifles the pacing and the characters. When a U.S. Senator visits Forest to request a campaign donation and to suggest the possibility of Congressional oversight, we know that he’s lying to her. From the top down, Amaya’s corporate culture demands that all employees master the art of reticence and dissimulation.  

The exemplar of villainy in this world is Kenton, the head of security at Amaya. Garland has cast Zach Grenier to play the part. In his seven seasons on The Good Wife, Grenier’s character never evolved into anything more than a greedy and manipulative lawyer. Here, as the muscle in Devs, he’s more self-contained than he was on that CBS melodrama. But he’s not much more than a brute and a faithful servant of Amaya’s dark heart. Unlikely as it is, my hope is that, when the big reveal drops, Kenton turns out to be a really nice guy. 

Garland also pays tribute to Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s fogged-in vision of San Francisco. Lily meets an associate of Sergei’s at Fort Point, the Golden Gate Bridge rendez-vous where Jimmy Stewart dives into the bay to rescue Kim Novak. Like Stewart’s character, Lily’s playing detective but she’s in over her head. The city scenery is mostly observed from above. And that’s how close it feels to an accurate depiction of San Francisco’s cultural life. The depiction of a homeless man who lives on Lily and Sergei’s Dolores Park doorstep prompted a friend of mine to ask, “Is it me, or is no one getting San Francisco right?” I suggested that he may turn out to be a plant or another red herring.

Devs expands the depiction of tech’s cultural aggression and annexation that David Fincher established in The Social Network. Garland tells us that, though warned, we’re now all servile creatures, beholden to the great gods who rule over us, however remotely, from their Silicon Valley headquarters. But when compared with the HBO series The Leftovers (2014-2017), Devs suggests a mood whereas Damon Lindelof’s series sustains a primal emotion. 

When 2 percent of the population suddenly disappears in The Leftovers, the world seizes up and contracts a universal feeling of loss. Despite a shared sense of grief, the show demonstrates the need for connection within one specific family (they’re stand-ins for the rest of humanity). Devs tells us that we can correct that feeling of loss by digitally engineering a response, since we no longer have the capacity to do so in real life. Being deprived of human contact as we are today, I prefer the now idealized conclusion that The Leftovers eventually reaches.  

At the end of Devs’ fourth episode, The Beacon Sound Choir sings, “We are the fortunate ones who get to be born again.” Perhaps that’s the secret Katie’s about to reveal.

Devs airs on FX on Hulu Thursdays.

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