Devs episode 1

Ooh, FX, you’re a decent channel. After bringing us the likes of Fargo, Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows (as well as stuff I want to see, like Snowfall and American Crime Story), we now have the bewitching Devs, which UK people can watch on BBC 2 or the iPlayer.

Devs seems to be somewhere between a science fiction show and a socio-cultural analysis both of Big Tech and how life is changing in the Bay Area. We witness the daily life and work of Sergei (Karl Glusman) and Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), who both get bussed out from their ultra-modern (if dim and modest) home, saying goodbye to their friendly homeless guy on the way out, to work at the ultra-high-tech Amaya campus, which is dominated by forest and an unsettlingly giant statue of a little girl. Once there, they are managed/mentored by Forest (Nick Offerman), who is bearded and maned in contrast to the young couple’s short hair and high cheekbones. Sergei and Lily are as minimalist as their apartment, and you wonder if Forest has had his shaggy individuality bestowed upon him with seniority and experience.

Did anyone else get flashbacks to Akira when they saw this?

I work in the general area of data/technology/Agile development, so Silicon Valley generally and this show specifically intrigue and entertain me. Silicon Valley is clearly the apex of achievement (and power) for people who work in my sector, and its ambition, modernity and endless money mean Devs may be a fantasy or eerily close to reality. I think that’s why it works.

Take the cloister in which the titular and mentioned-in-hushed-tones devs work: the lead Faraday shield, the 13 yard thick concrete shell, the gold mesh, the eight yard vacuum seal… It’s just like when I was product owner for my old place’s model office project, and we were testing out the physical environment! Yep, just like that. I jest, but the screens of code offer a passing familiarity to anyone who’s used VIsual Studio or R Studio in dark mode.

There is an utter serenity to the TV show for the first half of the episode. The setting is predictably beautiful and futuristic, partly due to being in northern California, and partly to communicate the sci-fi Mammon nature of Silicon Valley. Conversations take place at levels just over whisper; the incidental music ambiently relaxing: even the lighting is soothing. This makes for a show that is a tad unsettling in its ethereal-cum-somnambulist atmosphere, but one which has some very clever and beautiful sequences, such as the “hall of mirrors” style conversation among the golden pillars in the header photo.

As Sergei and his pals demo some AI to Forest, I am struck by the beauty of the lighting on this shot.

All beautiful and relaxing, that is, until Sergei breaks down, and the soundtrack grows a touch more discordant and shrill. Everything changes. It’s night, and Sergei is stressed out. He’s been promoted from AI to Devs, and the pressure is on. He starts crying as the enormity of his assignment becomes clear (again, like model office). Crying and puking into a perfect Silicon Valley toilet. He then does something with his Seiko watch that I don’t realise until Forest tells us while confronting Sergei. If you don’t mind spoilers, he uses his watch to film the code that’s scrolling up his screen, and is then suffocated – Prisoner style – by campus security.

Okay, so he’s not the main character any more.

The rest of the episode is understandably darker, as Sergei’s girlfriend Lily tres to find out what happened to him while seemingly being led down the garden path by Forest and the Amaya massive.

But why is everyone so chilled out? As I mentioned earlier, there is a serenity: the show is almost meditative. As well as the relaxing lighting and (for the most part) music, nobody raises their voice. Not even when Lily seeks out an ex she’s not spoken to for two years and asks him to help her current beau. He tells her to eff off in a shockingly measured manner. (Maybe he’d spent the last two years planning for just that moment, and decided to play it cool.)

I mentioned disinformation. While we know that Amaya staff have killed Sergei, we – and Lily – see CCTV footage in two sections. The first is as he walks with purpose off campus. The next as he pours petrol on himself and self-immolates, Thic Quang Duc-style, back on campus. Assuming this is a very clever graphical simulation thanks to Amaya tech, one wonders why the former employer would portray Sergei’s alleged suicide in such a demonstrative way. I guess it is effective visual storytelling if nothing else.

In a sense, the 50 minutes of near-whispering and ambient music pays off when Lily sees the footage and primally roars in grief, shattering the dreamlike atmosphere of the show. Episode ends when she rushes to see Sergei’s charred corpse for confirmation; one assumes Amaya did this after the suffocation.

I’m definitely intrigued as to where we go from here. I’ve not seen any of Garland’s work thus far, but Devs episode 1 is stylish, compelling and unsettlingly beautiful.

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