Pop Culture and Dystopia: Why TV Is So Worried About Free Will

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/03/devs-and-westworld-mine-data-dystopia/607771/

Devs, the new eight-part drama written and directed by Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation), is the kind of series that signals its grandiosity from the word go, with an abstract montage featuring choral music, saxophone interruptions, and fragmented scenes of San Francisco. In the opening seconds, the camera pans in slowly on the darkened features of Forest (played by Nick Offerman), a tech-company CEO with a bedraggled beard and a frozen expression, like a GEICO caveman who’s seen some stuff. Then it cuts to a triptych of video installations featuring a small girl blowing puffy white seeds off a dandelion. Devs is immediately ponderous, alienating, and full of unintentionally funny details: Why is there a 100-foot-high sculpture of that same small girl in the middle of the redwoods? Has the Golden Gate Bridge always seemed so IKEA-poster generic? Why is the most high-tech coding campus in Silicon Valley as gilded and blandly opulent as a Mandarin Oriental business center?

With Devs (one of the first shows to air on Hulu under the “FX on Hulu” mantle), and with the third season of Westworld, which debuts on HBO on Sunday, TV seems to be entering its age of algorithmic anxiety. There are no robots in Devs, but the characters are so flatly preoccupied with determinism—and with data’s potential ability to assess and contain the complexity of human lives within lines of code—that there may as well be. Every character in the show seems oddly muted in some way, tranquilized into mechanical acquiescence. It’s not that Offerman doesn’t have the range to play Forest, the delphic overlord of a “quantum AI” company called Amaya, with its unspecified products and creepy child logo. It’s that on-screen, the actor practically bursts with ebullience, and this is a whimsy-free zone. I burst out laughing when, in one scene, Forest shoved salad into his face without using any utensils, like a combless Amy Klobuchar. It was the one scene in eight plodding hours when Devs, for a minute, seemed as if it were in on the joke.

Sonoya Mizuno (Ex Machina) plays Lily, a young employee at Amaya who commutes cozily to work from San Francisco each day on the company bus with her boyfriend, Sergei (Karl Glusman). In the first episode, Sergei is handpicked by Forest to join “devs,” Amaya’s top-secret development initiative. The story unfolds in obtuse layers: Sergei’s walk down a (literal) garden path toward devs’ concrete-sealed headquarters; his introduction to the code that spells out what devs actually does; his visceral shock in response. By the time Sergei goes missing, viewers have seen enough to know that the “official” security footage of his dramatic self-immolation at the feet of Amaya’s enormous child idol is entirely unreliable.

Devs is only the latest in a series of puzzle-box shows more preoccupied with their own cleverness and their labyrinthine twists than with the burden of watchability. The past two seasons of Westworld have prized complexity over coherence; the work of Sam Esmail, specifically USA’s Mr. Robot and Amazon’s Homecoming, has set a tone for jarring, dour auteur-driven drama. Garland’s own style is distinct (think the chilling, philosophical agitations of Ex Machina or the vivid eco-horror of Annihilation), and yet [ … ]

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