In the US: Thursdays, Hulu
In the UK: Acquired by BBC
Most TV dramas are written by people without much knowledge of science and technology. The resulting mistakes annoy people who do have knowledge of science and technology. But as Mr Robot demonstrated, there is a market for TV dramas written by people who do understand science and technology. And as the title suggests, Devs is such a show – Devs is short for developers, as any IT fool knows.
However, Devs also demonstrates that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, both for audiences and for writers. Even the title is a trap for those who know about technology. Does Devs actually stand for developers or is that what the show wants you to think? Because one of the many mysteries that Devs builds up in its first two episodes is the mystery of what devs actually stands for – even the show’s collection of emotionless IT staff aren’t sure.
From the brain of Alex Garland
What Devs definitely is is the first TV show both written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Sunshine, 28 Days Later), meaning it’s very ‘hard SF’. It’s also one of the first “FX on Hulu” shows released so far, meaning it’s a bit more niche and a bit darker than the standard Hulu fare.
It sees Sonoya Mizuno and Karl Glusman playing a happy couple of super-brained developers working for bearded Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and his ultra high-tech San Francisco tech company. They’re the kind of people who argue over breakfast about the right mathematical functions to use for encryption protocols to avoid being vulnerable to cracking by quantum computers – which given that they live and work in a near future when quantum computers are both viable and useful isn’t quite as theoretical a worry as it might at first seem.
When AI researcher Glusman demonstrates to Offerman a neural model of a nematode that accurately predicts its behaviour for 10 seconds, he’s rapidly promoted to Offerman’s Devs division – a division so secret no one actually knows what it does and so advanced that it works in an area inside a Faraday cage that’s vacuum sealed away from the rest of the universe.
But that same day, Glusman disappears and Mizuno is tenacious enough to start investigating what’s happened to him, even after she’s seen CCTV footage of him setting fire to himself and burning to death. Soon she finds a mysterious app on his phone that really isn’t the Sudoku game it claims to be…
What is Devs? What happened to Sergei? What is the app really? What is Offerman planning to do? Why does he have a giant statue of his dead daughter looming over his house?
And does knowing too much about physics turn a rather good show that knows quite a bit about physics into something more annoying?
Devs has a big brain, but a small heart
Devs is a fabulously intriguing drama that lures the viewer in through some very interesting ideas and some very big questions. The main one is what is Devs?
Pleasingly, there are possibly outright answers to this throughout the first two episodes, so this isn’t a show that’s going to wait to the final episode of its eight-episode run before revealing absolutely everything.
But just as interesting are the clues: could quantum computer code (written by actual quantum computing programmers recruited by Garland, no less) actually make a man cry and be violently sick when he reads it, so profound are the things it says about the nature of the universe? Is it enough to make someone want to kill? What does it have to do with artificial intelligence and neural modelling?
What it doesn’t do as well at is the human side of the equation. With the actors all having to intone Very Important Lines in Very Long Speeches more worthy of a cult than an IT company, there’s no real sense of people, so much as simulacrums of people working through particular plot functions as directed by an advanced piece of software. Given the nature of Devs, that might turn out to be the show’s big revelation, but it does make the show hard to warm to.
It’s also a bit twp when it comes to action scenes. There’s a fight in the second episode that had to be shown in slow motion so that it seemed even slightly plausible. Although maybe that’s what happens if you cast Zach Grenier (Touching Evil) as your head of security.
The show is full of Very Long Speeches, which if they are true statements of authorial intent, suggest that this is very much a parallel universe – although it’s the kind of show where the portentous Offerman has long speeches about how he doesn’t believe in Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics so maybe it isn’t.
Indeed, it’s unclear if Garland believes in or knows anything about chaos theory, given some of the suggestions in these first two episodes. Very Long Speeches about deterministic universes, with possible tech based on such a system, do not over-ride the unpredictability of a Lorenz system, no matter how insanely powerful your quantum computer might be. And that’s before we get on to the joys of the uncertainty principle and measuring Planck lengths.
But maybe that’ll be revealed in the final episode as well. Maybe Offerman is murderously tilting at quantum windmills (and presumably not tilting at them at the same time).
In two minds about Devs
Whatever the case, my mind – just like Offerman’s and Mizuno’s minds, according to one of those Very Long Speeches – exists in two states simultaneously. In the first state, I am desperately impressed by the scope of Dev‘s imagination, the show’s production values, its direction, its ambition and the questions it raises.
In the second, I’m deeply irritated by Dev‘s failure to acknowledge chaos theory, the show’s inability to create engaging and even human characters, and its lack of understanding of any tradecraft beyond what Deep Throat came up with in All The President’s Men.
Is it possible to both love a show and be underwhelmed by it at the same time? Then that’s how I feel about Devs. And I’ll be watching the rest of it.