'Devs' And 'Amazing Stories' Bring Fresh Sci-Fi Drama To Streaming

Mar 6, 2020
Originally published on March 10, 2020 11:06 am
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. There's usually plenty of fantasy and science fiction on TV schedules, but this week brings a couple of especially high-profile examples premiering on streaming outlets. Hulu has just unveiled the first two episodes of an ambitious new eight-part drama series called "Devs." And today, Apple TV+ presents the first episode in a reboot of the 1980s Steven Spielberg anthology series, "Amazing Stories." Our TV critic David Bianculli reviews them both.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: This week brings two new TV dramas that can be lumped into the genre loosely defined as science fiction. Both are offered by streaming services but trace their roots to a more traditional broadcast and cable networks. One, a Hulu mini series called "Devs," is a definite must see. "Amazing Stories," based on the 1985 NBC anthology series by Steven Spielberg, is more of a wait and see. Its first episode, called The Cellar, is solid enough by sci-fi standards, but you can't judge any anthology series by only one episode. And that's all that Apple TV+ provided to critics.

The writing isn't that stellar, but on "Amazing Stories," it never was. More energy almost always went to the direction and the acting, the same mistake that has dragged down most episodes of Jordan Peele's current remake of "The Twilight Zone." And like Peele's "Twilight Zone," Spielberg's "Amazing Stories" is a reboot where the reigns have been handed over to others.

Neither of those new anthology series compares at all to Netflix's "Black Mirror," which is brilliant. It's too early to tell for sure, but the only amazing thing about "Amazing Stories" so far is that the new version retained and updated the original opening sequence, complete with that exciting musical theme by John Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN WILLAMS' "AMAZING STORIES: MAIN TITLE")

BIANCULLI: Now on to "Devs," a captivating, new eight-part mini-series that takes patience to watch and an effort to find. The expansion of the Disney empire now includes not only the ABC broadcast network and the Disney Plus streaming site, but also the FX cable network and the Hulu streaming service. "Devs" was made under the auspices of executives at FX, but don't look for it there. Instead, it's the first TV show presented under a new umbrella called - ready? - FX on Hulu. It's a bit weird and confusing, but if you want to see "Devs," you'll find it only on Hulu. The first two episodes premiered yesterday, and the remainder roll out weekly each Thursday. And you do want to see "Devs."

"Devs" is written and directed by Alex Garland, who created a similarly compelling, barely futuristic world in the movie "Ex Machina." Sonoya Mizuno, who played one of the lifelike robots in that movie, stars in "Devs" as Lily Chan, a software engineer for a powerful San Francisco area tech company called Amaya. Other prominent characters include Lily's boyfriend, Sergei, who also works for Amaya, and two top figures at the company. Nick Offerman, who played Ron Swanson on NBC's "Parks And Recreation," has a career-best role as Forest, the company's obsessed founder. And Alison Pill plays Katie, a quantum physicist who is second in command.

Early on, Sergei gets offered a promotion because of his gifted computer programming skills and gets a peek behind the curtain when he's allowed to look at the intricate computer code being worked on at the top-secret development, or devs, division of Amaya. Katie sees the shock on his face as he stares at his computer screen and quickly approaches him. Karl Glusman plays Sergei. Alison Pill plays Katie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DEVS")

ALISON PILL: (As Katie) Katie. We met earlier but weren't introduced.

KARL GLUSMAN: (As Sergei) Sergei.

PILL: (As Katie) As Forest told you, there's no hurry. You can lose yourself. You can take your time.

GLUSMAN: (As Sergei) Katie, I need to know. This code, is it for real, or is it just theoretical?

PILL: (As Katie) It's not theoretical.

GLUSMAN: (As Sergei) You mean you've actually run the code? There are results?

PILL: (As Katie) Yes.

GLUSMAN: (As Sergei) This changes everything. If it's true, it literally changes every single thing.

PILL: (As Katie) No. If it's true, it changes absolutely nothing. In a way, that's the point.

BIANCULLI: Some of the images in "Devs" are beautiful and mysterious, like the giant statue of a little girl that towers over the trees and landscapes surrounding the secluded campus of Amaya. Everything is explained in time over the eight episodes, and almost nothing is as it seems. Perspectives and storylines shift, and what seems to start as the story of Sergei and Forest eventually morphs to focus more intently on the women, Lily and Katie.

The secret project at the core of "Devs" is one of those things that's likely to stay with you and haunt you long after you've stopped watching. And that goes for the music, which is haunting and thrilling throughout - part "Twin Peaks," part "2001: A Space Odyssey," and sometimes, part Tuvan throat singing. The music, like Alex Garland's story, is relatively unique, and I use that phrase grammatically because the main topic of "Devs" turns out to be relativity. It's a thoughtful drama exploring quantum physics and predetermination. And how often do you get to see that on television?

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University in New Jersey.

On Monday's show, Terry talks with writer James McBride, known for his memoir, "The Color Of Water." His pre-Civil War novel, "The Good Lord Bird," is being adapted into a new Showtime series. And he has a new novel, "Deacon King Kong," set in a Brooklyn housing project in 1969. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer this week was Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Terry Gross returns Monday. I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.