I knew I was in trouble the minute I saw Nick Offerman with long hair. In Devs, the forthcoming FX series that will be streaming on Hulu starting March 5th, he plays Forest, the soft-spoken leader of Amaya, a massive Bay Area tech company that clearly must be up to something insidious because of its chic, clean, futuristic interior design. (All evil fictional companies take their décor tips from James Bond bad guys.) Offerman is best known as Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation’s gruff-but-goodhearted Libertarian, his bushy mustache and sensible haircut indicative of his no-bullshit personality. So when we observe Offerman as Forest, eerily gentle, deceptively nurturing and rocking a Jesus-like beard and flowing locks, we immediately get suspicious. It’s not just that Forest is deeply unlike Ron — it’s that he’s a perfect parody of a tech-genius super-villain.
If the character was meant to be a sly commentary on this tired sci-fi archetype, it could be really biting. But it’s not, which is Devs’ problem in general: This much-hyped eight-episode limited series, no matter how stylish and smart it is in other regards, doesn’t play with narrative tenets as much as it earnestly regurgitates them. During each of the show’s hour-long-ish installments, I wouldn’t say I was ever bored, but I found myself constantly hoping for something sharper than I was getting. Devs is packed with twists and mind-benders, but if you stick with it over subsequent weeks, you’ll be unsurprised by what it’s trying to do. Apparently, the future is already here — because we’ve seen it on other shows and movies already.
You can blame its writer-director for raising expectations. Alex Garland is among our most thought-provoking sci-fi storytellers. Before he started making movies himself, he was the screenwriter of great films like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go. Then, he stepped behind the camera for the Oscar-winning Ex Machina and the soon-to-be-cult-classic Annihilation. Some of those works are adaptations, while others are original scripts, but what they share is a fidelity to genre traditions mixed with a flair for inventiveness — not to mention a strong sense of character as well as insight into universal themes like mortality and loneliness. As much as his movies are drenched in sci-fi trappings, they’re deeply human, examining how (even in their seemingly futuristic settings) people are governed by their insecurities and fears.
Having raised the bar, Garland struggles to get over it with Devs, his first television series. He’s brought along a lot of his same creative team — including cinematographer Rob Hardy and production designer Mark Digby, who make the show look stupendous — but he can’t find much new to say about the collective anxieties swirling in our heads. Devs is very noticeably not set in some far-off future — like most of his films, it’s basically happening in a heightened near-present that’s recognizable but subtly technologically advanced; yet in terms of cutting-edge science fiction, the show actually feels antiquated.
As scary as Amaya is, it’s got nothing on FX, whose publicists will murder me if I reveal any spoilers, so I’ll be careful while laying out Devs’ plot. The show stars Sonoya Mizuno (Oscar Isaac’s dance partner in that highly meme-able moment from Ex Machina) as Lily, an Amaya software engineer who’s in a loving relationship with Sergei (Karl Glusman), a coder at the company who’s just received exciting news: He’s being promoted to be part of the super-secret Devs project. It’s an incredibly prestigious gig, even if no one outside of the project knows what Devs does, but it will allow Sergei to work alongside the enigmatic, messiah-like CEO Forest (Offerman), who’s partial to saying ostensibly calming things like “Everything will be all right” in a hushed voice. (He’s also got a bit of flaky-guru to him: After meeting Sergei, he explains his clandestine project by noting cryptically, “I wouldn’t even say the Devs team knows what the Devs team does.”) Soon, Sergei will learn Devs’ purpose — although we won’t until much later — but then goes missing. Concerned, Lily investigates, which will put her in the crosshairs of Devs and Forest.
On one level, Devs is an old-fashioned thriller in which Lily recruits her hacker ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) to help her get to the bottom of Sergei’s disappearance, but on another, the show is meant to be a trippy exploration of Devs’ implications. Getting into precisely what those implications are is tricky because of spoilers, but let me put it this way: Devs is working on something that would fundamentally alter our lives. Now, the pleasure in high-concept sci-fi like Devs comes from the anticipation of learning what the Big Secret is. (What exactly is the Matrix?) That can be an agonizing/tantalizing feeling as you’re being teased with possibilities of what that reveal could be, but all that teasing only works if the payoff is worth it — and in Devs, I was pretty disappointed.
Turns out, it’s just _____, which is a letdown, partly because you can see the reveal coming and partly because it opens the door to specific ethical and existential debates that are pretty familiar to sci-fi fans.
But that sense of being underwhelmed would matter less if the whole show didn’t feel like something you’ve seen before. Not only does Offerman do the ol’ eccentric-genius bit, we’ll discover that Forest’s reason for starting Devs is one of the hoariest clichés in all of sci-fi and horror movies. (Don’t any of these guys just try therapy instead?) Even Amaya itself will spark déjà vu: With its campus-like setting and slightly off air, the company is meant to evoke every impersonal, high-tech Silicon Valley startup we’re all fairly certain will help ensure that machines/the internet enslave us all. (If it wasn’t apparent enough that Amaya is bad, the company’s forested campus includes, as Hollywood Reporter television critic Daniel Fienberg memorably put it, “the colossal statue of a captivated girl, like Bob’s Big Boy … that towers above the treetops.” Every time Devs cuts back to this supposedly angelic statue, I laughed: It’s so incredibly, obviously creepy in an uncanny-valley kind of way that it’s amazing that Lily never asks, “Uh, so what’s up with scary-looking giant kid watching over all of us?”)
Devs doesn’t so much tap into our underlying fears — the concern that we’re losing our humanity, the growing panic that life on this planet is unsustainable, the nagging worry that we’re powerless to control our fate — as it presents the most banal genre representations of those fears, recycling rather than exploring those shared dreads.
As any sci-fi fan will tell you, the genre’s way-out plots are meant to speak to our times, even if they’re set 1,000 years from now — our troubled world reflected through an escapist, fantastical prism. And, indeed, there’s no shortage of troubling sci-fi on the big or small screen. Whether it’s Westworld or the most recent Terminator, we’re constantly warned about the dark future just around the corner. Garland has crafted some of the best sci-fi this century, so I suppose we should forgive him for not being able to compete with his own high standards. And to be fair, Devs contains enough of his icy brilliance that it’s still fairly entertaining. The show, however, is mostly wading into waters we all know well — and giving us nothing new to dream about or fret over.
It used to be that audiences were afraid of an uncertain future. But with Devs, maybe the greater fear is that we’ve stopped coming up with fresh ways to imagine what that bleakness will look like.