Sometimes, when a story is wild enough, there aren’t a lot of options other than to throw a character (or characters) at the craziness and let them stand in the place of the audience as they unravel the mystery. Not in the sense of any story with an investigator or investigation, but in the sense of something like LOST – plane crash, no one has a clue what madness they’ve landed in, go.
Devs is such a story. Perhaps laced with even more tension, or easier tension, because it involves a tech company instead of smoke monsters, and nothing a computer guru comes up with seems that far-fetched.
Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) is a software engineer working at what is certainly the biggest tech company on the planet. When her boyfriend gets the nod to move up to the company’s “Devs” division, Lily’s life gets torn apart and it’s up to her to try to figure out just what happens in the ultra-secret part of her company, and what project/s they might be working on. This puts her at odds, to one degree or another, with the aforementioned tech guru, Forest (Nick Offerman), and his number one wizard, Katie (Alison Pill).
The trailer gives a surprising amount away, even just in saying, “Nothing happens without a reason. Everything is determined,” and the show (in the most spoiler-free sense) is just about figuring out what that means. Forest is definitely fantastically committed to his project, whatever it is, and one of the show’s best features is its own commitment to Forest’s particular brand of fanaticism. That’s especially true when he eventually becomes, in part, a stand-in for the human condition of believing what we have to believe to stay sane, no matter where that leads.
Through the first few episodes, Devs is as engrossing as anything on television, despite the fact that it sometimes moves at a snail’s pace. Offerman, though the series doesn’t exactly give him a lot of room to display his alleged brilliance, is the perfect blend of disinterest and focus. He makes wandering through the maze compelling, even if we take the time to notice that we’re just staring at a bunch of walls, because he is both straight-forward and unrelatable. As things unfold, he moves into a realm that is almost mesmerizing, because the audience is forced to wonder about what happens when genius is simply operating from a compromised viewpoint, which (and this could not be crazier within the context of the show) alters his decision-making ability.
Mizuno is likewise an impressive blend of bewilderment and drive that will not be deterred. If there were no other reason to tune in, getting lost inside Lily’s buoyant disbelief would suffice. As layers of impossibility are peeled back, Mizuno manages to deliver a character believably confronted by pure madness, and more importantly (especially in this story), a character that feels true to herself at every stage.
Devs is a show that is wildly fun and effective, and perhaps the upper echelon of what it means to be a show that will “have people talking.”
Unfortunately, much like Alex Garland‘s other recent works, it tries to be too smart for its own good. When you’ve “heard of determinism,” or read the syllabus summary of that day’s lecture, the story you run with has to be in the same vein as The Matrix. Then you have a fun adventure that has a bit of a laugh with some corner of philosophy. When you start thinking that, given that same amount of knowledge, you could suddenly teach the class, then you’re in the sequels of The Matrix, and it’s all just nonsense. There’s certainly something to be said for suspending disbelief, but trying to suspend disbelief as that might relate to a story proving that it is itself impossible is tricky ground.
Devs manages to explore ideas in a way that television is mostly scared to do, and that’s something. It also does so in a way that is undeniably entertaining, wonderfully surreal, and almost always nerve-wracking. Still, there’s a reason you can’t rewatch LOST, and it’s rather an important one.