The new FX series Devs may be set in the world of high tech, but its creator is politely asking you to put yours down while checking it out.
Alex Garland wants you to choose to watch his show — really be present — not half-watch while fiddling with your phone. It’s not that kind of show.
“If somebody was spending a lot of time sending text messages or checking what’s going on in the news on their phones while watching the story, it would make very little sense,” he says.
Garland, who wrote and directed each episode, has a point: Devs is an absorbing meditation on the very essence of human existence and free will, all hidden in an elegant techno-thriller. It’s worth putting down your gizmo.
The eight-part limited series is available starting Thursday exclusively on FX on Hulu and centers on the character of Lily, a young computer engineer working for a cutting-edge tech giant on a sprawling San Francisco campus.
When Lily’s boyfriend disappears while working in the secretive Devs complex — where the company plans its coolest developments — Lily investigates. Along the way, Garland explores quantum physics, determinism and the laws of the universe. Seriously.
“As the story was coming to me, one of the things I kept thinking is: ‘I don’t know how I could possibly tell this in a two-hour narrative,’” he says. Embracing TV made sense: “It was unbelievably liberating from my point of view.”
Fans of Garland’s breakthrough film Ex Machina will find familiar stylish fingerprints: Unrushed storytelling, cool menace, elegant doses of philosophy, an affinity with darkness and stillness, profound musical choices and striking visual effects.
One image clearly stands out: A gigantic statue of a girl towering over the tech company’s campus. It’s both adorable, odd, menacing, creepy and innocent — an unsettling exclamation point for this ambitious series.
The Hollywood Reporter calls Devs “haunting and hypnotic, a show of marrow-seeping mood and a unity of vision that carries through every frame.” Decider calls it an “ indisputably stunning mystery.” TV Insider cheered its ” life-affirming heart.”
Sonoya Mizuno plays the obvious heroine Lily, but to paint the enigmatic tech giant boss played by Nick Offerman as the show’s villain is to underestimate Garland.
“The moral landscape of the story is much more complicated than that,” Garland says. “People do have mixed motivations. They’re not typically all good or all bad.”
If you detect a touch of Steve Jobs in Offerman’s character — a workaholic with a cult of personality and a genius-level mind — you’re not wrong. Garland is fascinated by the people behind the technology.
“In part, Devs is concerned with the messianic qualities that the bosses at tech companies seem to contain,” he says. “When I see a big product launch and the enthusiastic audience, I think there is a lot that is church-like about that. It feels like a devotional exercise.”
Alison Pill, who plays the tech boss’ top lieutenant, was a fan of Ex Machina and devoured all eight Devs scripts within hours when they were sent. “Everything that I sort of expected was upended,” she says.
Pill describes a rehearsal process for the series like no other, including frank discussions about the fundamental differences between waves and particles. “When I say it’s about everything. It’s about everything,” she said, laughing.
Garland’s often sidelong glance at technology and society have given him a bit of a reputation as someone who views the future negatively, but that’s not how he or Pill see it.
“A lot of people make Alex out to be a pessimist, and I absolutely disagree with that notion,” Pill says. Garland also dismisses being dystopian, saying Devs is about compassion: “There’s nothing misanthropic about the story. It’s exactly the opposite.”
Garland reunited with many of the artists who made Ex Machina so exhilarating, including cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby. Pill called Garland a respectful collaborator, one who is open to suggestions.
“You might not expect that from these auteur type of guys. I’ve seen that play out and it can be unpleasant,” she said. “This is something that feels like such a community. We all would happily join the cult if he ever decided to start one.”
The resulting series is a dizzying trip into Garland’s mind, one that mixes the poets Philip Larkin and W. B. Yeats, references to the Kennedy assassination, Marilyn Monroe and “Jurassic Park,” and songs by ‘70s rockers Free and John Martyn. It’s a strange trip indeed — and that’s the point.
“Something about stories, in a funny way, as they get stranger, I think they get closer to our lived experience,” he says. “Because, ultimately, whatever else it is, it is very, very strange to be alive.”
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