Alex Garland Brings His Strange and Enrapturing Vision to ‘Devs’

There are shows that transcend the traditional limits of television, bringing together a cinematic vision with the serial nature of episodic storytelling. “Devs” is just that kind of show. It’s the first streaming project by director Alex Garland, a filmmaker with a scope of vision that asks big questions with unique visual flare. His films have proven to be absorbing if divisive puzzles, pondering questions of time, space and technology. “Devs” begins simply enough as a murder mystery, but the case is just the beginning of a challenging and grand journey.

The series is set in a San Francisco riddled with both the homeless and tech workers. Sergei (Karl Glusman) works at a Silicon Valley company named Amaya, which is of course trying hard to be innovative. It’s overseen by Forest (Nick Offerman), who looks misleadingly like a regular California hipster. Sergei is dating a software engineer at the company, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno). After proposing a groundbreaking project, Sergei is offered a spot in a branch of Amaya known as “Devs,” where coders toil silently within a golden-hued system connected to a mysterious project. When Sergei takes a look at the code he is to read over and work with his mind can barely comprehend it. Then, he disappears. Obviously worried Lily begins to seek help from wherever possible to find out what happened to Sergei. But searching will take her deeper into the strange world of Amaya and challenge much of what she thought she knew about the company and even her boyfriend.

Those who have followed Garland’s work as a writer and director will instantly recognize his unique aesthetic in “Devs.” The spacey ambiance, the crisp cinematography and a soundtrack with the hint of some electronic transmission are all here. The woodlands around San Francisco become an eerie space shrouded in faint light while Amaya’s headquarters are situated under the giant statue of a little girl in a dress. Garland’s work mixes science fiction with existential musings, from his A.I. thriller “Ex Machina” to the transcendental and underrated “Annihilation.” This is an FX production exclusively for Hulu, so Garland is given even more space to indulge in his obsessions without having to worry about box office performance. In “Devs” he turns infamously expensive and tech-overrun San Francisco into a strange terrain where odd figures scheme. Nick Offerman’s Forest speaks in a monotone, cold tone as if he’s all wise. When Sergei asks what exactly his new job will be Forest nonchalant says he doesn’t have to explain it, leaving Sergei to stare into a computer screen within the golden halls of Devs. Later he offers little comfort to a confused Lily. Earlier when Sergei is interviewed for the new job by an Amaya security official, Kenton (Zach Grenier), the tone becomes claustrophobic and ominous. The fact that he’s a first generation Russian American raises eyebrows, as well as Lily’s status about being Chinese American. Inside Devs everyone seems like dutiful followers of Forest, including Katie (Alison Pill), who speaks with the vibe of a cult member. 

Because this is a show and not a film, Garland gives nothing away in the series premiere except for what (might of) happened to Sergei for him to be missing. In the first two hours of “Devs” he slowly pulls us into what will be an eight-episode run, each chapter directed by Garland. The set mystery is set up beautifully in a way where exposition never gets in the way. Lily gets desperate to find Sergei and can’t crack his phone, so she seeks a bitter ex, Jamie (Jin Ha) and we learn about her own past. The writing features characters who feel authentic even as they wander a bizarre narrative. They look and talk like the countless tech-savvy college graduates swarming big cities, but facing a terrible mystery. Garland throws around scientific terminology about nature and behavior that rings with enough authenticity to make the show always feel plausible. He even brings in his usual cinematographer, Rob Hardy, to give the show the warm tones and delicate lights and reflections that gave “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” their immersive feel. 

What can be said from the premiere of “Devs” is that it is one of the year’s first truly fantastic TV offerings. It’s a perfect example of why many of the best directors working today are preferring to migrate to the limitless horizons of streaming. “Devs” doesn’t have to explain everything in its first chapter. It focuses on establishing atmosphere, characters and ideas. The mystery is simply the starting point for a vision inviting us to seek it out every week.

Devs” season one premieres March 5 with new episodes streaming every Thursday on FX on Hulu.