‘Devs’ – Technobabble Gets A Glamorous Makeover
I have started ranting at the TV. I never used to even watch it. As a result, I’m completely out of the loop. The last show I saw was ‘Minder’ on television in a hospital waiting room. I think they have it permanently tuned to the 1980s.
I’d been looking forward to Alex Garland’s SF TV series ‘Devs’. The writer-director is an exciting, frustrating talent. ‘Dredd’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘The Beach’ all felt damaged by corporate interference. ’28 Days Later’, ‘Ex-Machina’ and the brilliant ‘Annihilation’ clearly passed more smoothly through the production process. But the risk of all televised SF lies in finding its balance between ideas and humanity, hearts and minds. Into this mix we should perhaps add believability.
The rebirth of SF as a popular streaming choice started with the shameless ratings-chasing ‘Lost’ and drifted into an odd netherworld of SF without FX, where robots are just beautiful people and dystopic scenarios feature abstract conversations unfolding against brutalist architecture. ‘The Man in the High Castle’, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Westworld’ ultimately suffered from this repetitiveness, sandwiching extreme violence and sex between Socratic dialogues. Shows like ‘Sense8’ and ‘The Leftovers’ had intriguing ideas buried in repeat episodes of waffle.
‘Devs’ is more glamorous, more privileged, more GenX and yet somehow more retro, the story of a tech development company, gorgeously rendered in the woodlands beyond San Francisco. The offices may look like a Tom Dixon showroom but at heart this is an old-fashioned adventure; spunky girl detective and sidekick on trail of dead boyfriend’s killer come up against sinister corporation. But in this futuristic, cautious world the company guilty secret is carried around on…a dongle? Containing secret information downloaded from a thuggish security guard (presumably one who doesn’t know how to encrypt his files) while his back is turned? Never mind, we carry on toward the big reveal of the tech McGuffin…and my jaw drops.
Not just because the idea is absurd no matter how much technobollocks you dress it up in, but because its applications are so cheesy. In both ‘Contact’ and ‘Ad Astra’ the plots shrank down to hinge upon daddy issues. ‘Devs’ is more expansive but cut from the same cloth. By the time Marilyn Monroe and Jesus put in an appearance I’d removed my vested interest. But the big thing here is the look of it all.
It’s amazing how much TV manages to convince through the styling. We’re suckers for high-tech labs and concealed lighting. Smoke and mirrors can suggest we’re watching something more interesting than geeks at keyboards. ‘Devs’ introduces a new GenX twist – the entire cast acting on horse tranquillisers. The strange casting strands former model Sonoya Mizuno in a role that demands she show some emotion instead of just looking uncomfortable.
Dialogue is elliptical, tentative, inconclusive. The soundtrack is twiddly and a bit whiny. Episode 5 is the single most soporific instalment of any show in history. ‘I’m in fairly deeply like with you,’ says one character. The big SF idea is straight out of the MCU, and has been a part of it for decades. The cast members are foetal. And yet – there is something, a faintly mystical otherworldliness that Garland brings to all his projects. He wins my admiration for that. If only he’d made a series from ‘Annihilation’, which feels like it has so much more potential.