The idea that the technology industry has the power not just to reshape the world in which we live but — through acts of creative destruction — build a new one overlaying and eventually supplanting it has been fertile territory for the arts in recent memory. Indeed, to this point, one of the bards of a precarious moment has been Alex Garland, whose films “Ex Machina” and “Annihilation” use the imaginative tools of sci-fi to examine how seismic change reshapes how we understand our selves and our ties to one another.
In a foray into TV — on a show whose every episode he wrote and directed — Garland doesn’t pull off the same trick again, delivering a product that delivers neither the wildly creative sense of tech’s possibilities nor the ground-level excavation of his characters. On FX’s “Devs,” streaming on Hulu starting March 2 as part of the cable network’s new arrangement, a young woman named Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) examines the apparent suicide of her boyfriend (Karl Glusman), an event that takes place shortly into his tenure as a developer — part of the “Devs” division — at a seemingly omnipotent corporation called Amaya. Her quest for knowledge leads her into collision with the Amaya leadership, themselves seekers of cosmic truths.
There might seem, in theory, to be the potential for some sparks generated when someone seeking simple procedural knowledge collides with those seeking to use a sort of technology indistinguishable from magic to solve the universe. (The sort of solutions they seek represents a surprise it feels unsporting to spoil; suffice it to say they want to know everything.) But, as Forest, Amaya’s CEO, Nick Offerman is frustratingly vacant, bound by the script to speak in koans; his own pre-existing persona and somewhat closed-off acting style help matters little. He seems to occupy a different plane even when he is sharing the frame — a fact that, if intentional, over-proves the point that this character has lost touch with humanity and forecloses other insights.
“Devs” probes questions of free will and fate — with Lily as someone who may or may not be fated to be an agent of seismic change — in a manner frankly not intriguing enough at limited-series length. Lily’s storyline, one of endless pursuit by an indefatigable security chief (Zach Grenier) while working with an ex (Jin Ha) to hack her way to knowledge, provides the show’s action — less Garland’s strong suit historically than his more philosophical material. That half of the show concerns in large part the central trauma motivating Forest, the one that prompted him to create his Devs team; it turns out to be less complicated even than the one at the heart of “Annihilation,” a single feature film. Multiplying the running time by four, and cloaking the dialogue in gnomic attempted mystery (much of it assigned to a game but wasted Alison Pill as a higher-up in Amaya), amplifies the ways in which the questions the story asks are finally not that interesting.
To draw a comparison: Even a defender of “Westworld,” a far more curious and artful show about similar issues of global upheaval, can acknowledge the degree to which the show is overstuffed with ideas, with character and incident. This may be one’s taste or not, but the show is perpetually the most TV even when not the best, an attempt at mirroring, and then diagnosing, a chaotic moment that I find moving. “Devs” feels wan and undernourished by comparison, a show whose central characters have plainspoken single objectives at odds with one another, expressed in blunt utilitarian language and in the absence of compelling visual metaphor. The park the Devs occupy features trees surrounded by levitating lit halos, as if to provide some sense that this was the future, and a giant sculpture of a child, a clue to one of the show’s big mysteries. These are the big set pieces, along with a horizontal elevator of sorts that recalls the angular mansion of “Ex Machina,” but the show otherwise feels unadorned in a manner that suggests less “the way we live now” than an unwillingness to push towards a more visually compelling place.
Which is worth noting if only because “Annihilation,” with its shimmering pathway to personal oblivion, and “Ex Machina,” with its stark and austere luxury mansion-turned-cage, were quite so riveting to look at. “Devs” exists in a world where anything is possible. But, apart from a very few moments deep in its run, it withholds grandeur from us. “Devs” is about the stages on which radical changes to humanity are being rehearsed and prepared; its characters toy with some of the deepest mysteries of the soul. But in, to its last moment, its relentlessly tight focus on questions viewers could be forgiven for caring about less than the fate of the world — what happened to Forest, and to Lily’s boyfriend? — is punishing. In all, “Devs” is a misfire for a talented creator, one whose next work is worth awaiting even or especially if it comes in a nimbler, smaller package.