Devs is a TV series about a conceit at the heart of every big tech company – that there is a Problem with the universe, and a man (isn’t it usually a man?) with a genius bit of software can fix it. The setting is the Silicon Valley company Amaya, and the mysterious department at its centre, Devs, which is only for the brightest and best of its employees.
When employee Lily Chan’s (Sonoya Mizuno) boyfriend, Sergei, is selected to move up from Artificial Intelligence to Devs, handpicked by the founder Forest (Nick Offerman) himself, they are both delighted. Except this is a show by Alex Garland, creator of Annihilation, and things very rapidly go wrong. Sergei does not return home after his very first day at work and a distraught Lily enlists her ex-boyfriend, Jamie, to do a little clever hacking and find out what it really is that Devs does.
Nick Offerman shines as Forest, the long-haired genius at the helm of Amaya, who is willing to stop at nothing to see his mission go through. This role couldn’t be further from the woodworking, government-hating Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation – and his performance is all the more terrifying for it.
The head of security at Amaya Kenton, (Zach Grenier) supports this, and does his gruesome job with clinical detachment. In fact, all of Devs – Katie (Allison Pill), Forest’s right hand woman, the resident jokester Stewart (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and boy genius Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny) – approach their jobs with detachment. They are only here to revel in the technical perfection of the code they write.
Devs uses conversations to slowly amp up the pace. Katie – cold, calm, clinical, half-smiling tech genius Katie – has some of the most deliciously edge-of-the-seat scenes, as she uses the Socratic method on our heroes. Lily’s frightened, indignant responses to the questions are how we all feel about things, if they only didn’t fall to the perfect logic of Katie’s science. This is somehow even more frightening than Kenton’s violence displayed in fight scenes.
Lily fights tooth and nail, not for a bigger mission like Forest, but for the here and now. Jamie, for his part, is the boyfriend we all wish we had – honest, telling it like it is, but also unfailingly loyal. There is nothing clinical about him. Where the Devs team are almost robotic in their commitment to their work and the success of the project, Lily and Jamie hold up a mirror to them, and ask what the hell it is they think that they are doing.
Lily and Jamie’s relationship is the beating heart of the show. They have all the tenderness of a couple who love each other, but for whom things haven’t quite worked out. And they ask all the uncomfortable questions that we do – but Devs won’t. Devs has been created to predict human actions – but what if people don’t act that way? What are the ethical implications of this? When we finally learn what Devs’ mission really is, and why Forest is so secretive about it, it’s Lily who asks him if Devs is just trying to play God.
Behind all the geek-talk about the nature of the universe, and whether there are alternate realities, is a simple question – are our actions pre-determined? And if so, can we both look into the past and predict the future? This may have seemed laughable only ten years ago, but perhaps not any more.
Today, Netflix makes suggestions based on what I’m likely to enjoy, and my food delivery app sends me a detailed analysis of the food I most like to order – are my actions really that predictable? And what are the implications of a future when all our actions are just the product of number crunching on an algorithm? Devs may not have all the answers, but it certainly does ask the right questions.
I did not find the ending of Devs very satisfying, but that was perhaps because the journey there was remarkable. The shots – especially those of a very creepy statue of a little girl looking over the lush green Amaya campus– convey both the expansiveness of the mission, and how suffocating it can feel to be part of it. The sound track can be a bit, well, odd, but it does get the science-fiction-dystopic-present mood just right. There are little hints of the secret for the eagle-eyed viewer that Garland lets you figure out for yourself. It’s scary, yes – think Black Mirror-meets-Steve Jobs – but also truly compelling.
Devs is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Watch the trailer here: