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FX TV Series Review: Devs

Posted in botch, california, entertainment, Uncategorized by commorancy on March 7, 2020

devsDevs is a new “limited” series from FX, also being streamed on Hulu. Let’s explore everything that went wrong here.

Silicon Valley Startups

Having worked in Silicon Valley for several tech companies, I can confirm exactly how unrealistic this show is. Let’s start by discussing all of the major flaws within the pilot. I should also point out that the pilot is what sets the tone of a series. Unfortunately, the writers cut so many corners setting up the pilot’s plot, the rest of the series will suffer for it.

As a result of the sloppy writing for the pilot, the writers will now be required to retcon many plot elements into the series as the need arises. Retconning story wouldn’t have been needed had they simply set up this series properly. Unfortunately, they rushed the pilot story.

Slow Paced

While you might be thinking, “Well, I thought the pacing of the series was extremely slow.” The dialog and scene pacing is slow. But, the story itself moves along so rapidly, if you blink you’ll miss it.

What’s it about?

A girlfriend and boyfriend pair work for the same fictional tech company named “Amaya”. It is located in a redwood forested area near San Francisco, apparently. It doesn’t specifically state where it exists, but it’s somewhere located in a wooded area.

The female lead, Lily, and the male lead, Sergei, are in a relationship. She’s of Chinese-American heritage and he’s of Russian descent. She works on the crytography team at Amaya and he works in the AI division at Amaya (at least in the pilot of the show).

Things Go Awry

Almost immediately, the series takes a bad turn. Sergei shows off his project to the ‘Devs’ team leader, another team in the company. We later come to find that this unkempt leader is actually the founder of the company and Amaya was his daughter who died. He also apparently heads up a part of the company that we come to find is named ‘Devs’. Unfortunately, because there’s no setup around what ‘Devs’ exactly is, this leaves the viewer firmly lost over the magnitude of what’s going on at this meeting. Clearly, it isn’t lost on Sergei as he’s extremely nervous about the meeting, but he still goes in reasonably confident of his project. As viewers, though, we’re mostly lost until much later in the episode.

Sergei demonstrates his project to this not-explained team and they seem suitably impressed with Sergei’s project’s results… that is until the end of the meeting when the results begin failing due to insufficient amounts of processing power.

Still, Sergei’s results are impressive enough that he is invited (not the rest of his team) to join ‘Devs’ right then and there.

And then we hear the sound of a record needle being ripped across a record…

Not how Silicon Valley works

You don’t get invited to join some kind of “elite coveted” team at the drop of a hat like that. Managers have paperwork, transfer requests have to be made and budgets have to be allotted. There are lots of HR related things that must result when transferring a person from one department to another, even at the request of the CEO. It’s not a “You’re now on my team effectively immediately” kind of thing. That doesn’t occur and is horribly unrealistic.

Ignoring the lack of realism of this transfer, the actor playing Sergei is either not that great of an actor or was directed poorly. Whatever the reason, he didn’t properly convey the elation required upon being invited and accepted into “the most prestigious” department at Amaya. If he were actually trying to get into ‘Devs’, his emotions should have consisted of at least some moment of joy. In fact, the moment he’s accepted into ‘Devs’, it almost seems like fear or confusion blankets him. That’s not a normal emotion one would experience having just stepped into a “dream job”.

This is where the writers failed. The writers failed to properly explain that this was Sergei’s dream job. This is also where the writers failed to properly set up the ‘Devs’ team as the “Holy Grail” of Amaya.

Clearly, the writers were attempting to set this fictional Amaya company up to mirror a company of a similar size of Google or Apple.

Location

Ignoring the meeting that sets up the whole opening (and which also fails to do so properly), Sergei heads home to explain to Lily his change in company status and his transfer into ‘Devs’. They have a conversation about the closed nature of that team and that they won’t be able to discuss his new job in ‘Devs’.

The next day, Sergei heads over to the head of Amaya security to be ‘vetted’ for the ‘Devs’ team. Apparently, there’s some kind of security formality where the security team must interview and vet out any potential problems. The security manager even points out that because Sergei is native Russian and because Lily is Chinese that there’s strong concern over his transfer. If this security person is so concerned over his background, then he should rescind his transfer effective immediately.

Instead, he sends Sergei on his way to meet with the ‘Devs’ manager who then escorts him through a heavily wooded area into what amounts to an isolated fortress.

Record needle rips across again… “Hold it right there”

While it’s certainly possible a tech startup might attempt to locate its headquarters deep in a wooded area, it’s completely unrealistic. California is full of tree huggers. There are, in fact, way too many tree huggers in California. There is no way a company like Google or Apple could buy a heavily forested area and then plop down a huge fortress in the middle of it. No, not possible. In fact, an organization like “Open Space Trust” would see to it that they would block such a land purchase request. There is no way a private company could set this up.

A governmental organization could do it simply through annexation via eminent domain, but not a private company. Let’s ignore this straight up California fact and continue onward with this show. Though, it would have made more sense if Amaya had been government sanctioned and funded.

Sergei’s First (and Last) Day

Ignoring the improbable setup of this entire show, Sergei is escorted by his new boss, who remarkably looks like Grizzly Adams… but more dirty, homeless and unkempt. Typically, Silicon Valley companies won’t allow men who look like this into managerial roles. Because we come to find later that he is apparently the “founder” of Amaya, the rest of the company lets his unkempt look slide. His look is made worse by the long hair wig they’ve glued onto this actor. If you want a guy to look like Grizzly Adams, at least have him grow his hair out to some length so a lacefront wig looks at least somewhat realistic.

Anyway, let’s move on. Sergei is escorted through a heavily wooded area (complete with a monstrously huge and exceedingly ugly statue of a child in a creepy pose) and onto his new work location… the aforementioned fortress I described earlier. His boss explains how well secured the location is by pointing out its security features including an “unbroken vacuum seal” to which Sergei ponders aloud before being shown how it works. Sergei is then told that there is only one rule. That rule being that no personal effects go into the building and nothing else comes out of it. Yet, this rule is already broken when they head inside. Even the “manager” breaks this rule.

Once they enter the building and get past the entry area, Mr. Grizzly explains that nothing inside the building is passworded. It’s all open access to everything. He is then shown his workspace and left to his own devices. Grizzly explains he’ll figure it out on his own by “reading the code”.

Unrealistic. No company does this.

Last Day

Here’s where everything turns sour. We are left to assume that only one day has passed since Sergei has been been escorted into the building. Sergei then stares at his terminal screen not doing anything for about 5 minutes. He gets up, goes to the bathroom, barfs and then fiddles with his watch.

He then attempts to leave the building, yet somehow it’s night time. It was probably morning when he entered. Here’s where the storytellers failed again. There was no explanation of time passage. The same screen he was looking at when he entered is the same screen that was on his terminal when he attempts to leave. Yet, now it’s night time?

His manager assumes that Sergei has absconded with the code (remember the open access?) from the facility and that he is attempting to leave with it on his “James Bond Watch”. Sergei is jumped by the head of Amaya security and is seemingly suffocated by this same head of security no less.

And so the retcon begins…

The writers have now killed the person they needed to explain this story. So now, they have to rely on Lily to unravel what happened (as a newly minted detective). Here’s where the show goes from being a possible uplifting story to an implausible detective horror story.

To enable Lily to even get the first clue what has happened to her boyfriend, the ‘Devs’ and the security teams collude to fabricate footage to make it appear as if Sergei is acting oddly while walking around the campus.

Instead of the writers creating actual story, they rely on fake security footage to retell the story. They even go so far as to fabricate a person setting themselves on fire with Sergei’s face attached… to make it appear as some kind of suicide. Yeah, I doubt Lily is buying any of it. Unfortunately, the writers leave too much unsaid. So, we have no idea what Lily is really thinking.

Instead, Lily heads off to find her ex-boyfriend and ask him for help… who he then summarily tells her to “fuck off”. This whole ex-boyfriend premise is so contrived and unrealistic it actually tops the list of unrealistic tropes in this show.

Questions without Answers

Would a Silicon Valley company stoop to murder to protect its intellectual property? I guess it could happen, but it is very unlikely. Would they allow a thug to head up its security team? Exceedingly doubtful. If a company were to need to protect its property through acts of violence, it would hire out for that.

Though, really, Amaya is actually very naive. If they didn’t trust Sergei, they shouldn’t have hired him. Worse, they allowed their one rule to be broken… allowing personal effects inside the building. Both Sergei and Grizzly wear watches into the building. If no personal effects are to be carried in or out, then that includes ALL forms of technology including wrist watches of any form. In fact, they should require everyone to change their clothes before entering the building, forcing ALL personal effects into a locker with no access to that locker until shift end. The staff would then wear issued wardrobe for the duration of their work shift.

If Amaya had simply followed its own rules by setting the whole system up correctly, there wouldn’t have been the possibility of any code theft or the need to murder an employee. Yet, Sergei is allowed to wear his watch into the building? It is then assumed that Sergei has managed to copy all (?) of the code onto his watch? Setting up such a secure system would have forced Sergei to thwart this system in some way creating more drama and enforcing the fact that Sergei is, indeed, a spy. By killing Sergei off so quickly, the writers were requires to take many shortcuts to get this story told.

Clearly, corporate espionage does exist, but would anyone attempt corporate espionage on their first day on a new team? On their second day? I think not. In fact, this setup is so contrived and blatantly stupid, it treats not only Sergei, but the audience as if we haven’t a brain in our heads. That the writers also assume that Russian espionage is this stupid is also insane.

No. If Sergei were being handled as a spy, he would only attempt espionage after having been in the position for a long time… perhaps even years. Definitely well enough time to be considered “trusted”. No company fully trusts a new employee on the first day. No company gives full access to all data to a new employee on the first day, either. There is no way that “first day” Sergei could have ever been put in the position of having access to everything.

Further, a new employee needs to fully understand exactly what’s going on in the new department, where everything is and get accustomed to the new work area and new co-workers. There is no way Sergei would have attempted to abscond any the code when he barely understands what that code is even doing. Preposterous.

Episode 2

The writers then again further insult us with the passworded Soduku app that Lily finds on Sergei’s phone. Lily enlists her ex-boyfriend again (whom she hadn’t talked to in years) to help unlock the app. Amazingly, this second time he agrees. He then explains to Lily that it’s a Russian messaging app and that Sergei was a spy.

Here’s the insulting part. After her ex-boyfriend unlocks the app, all of the messages are in English. Seriously? No, I don’t think so. Every message would have been in Russian, not English. If it’s a Russian app, they would communicate using the Russian language. But then the next part wouldn’t have made any sense.

Lily then decides to text whomever is on the other end. If the text had been in Russian, she would have had to learn enough Russian to message the other party. By making the text app English, it avoids this problem. That’s called “lazy writing”.

Inexplicably, the other end decides to meet with Lily. Needle rips again… No, I don’t think so. If it were really Sergei’s handler with the power to delete the app, the app would have been deleted immediately after Lily made contact. No questions asked. If they wanted to meet with Lily, they likely would have abducted her separately much, much later.

Still, it all conveniently happens. Worse, when the meeting takes place, the head of Amaya’s security is somehow there eavesdropping on the whole conversation. Yeah, I don’t think so. If the head of Amaya’s security is there, that either means he’s spying on Sergei’s apps (which are likely encrypted, so there’s no real way) or Amaya’s future prediction algorithm is already fully functional.

Basically, everything is way too convenient. Worse, if Amaya does manage to crack the prediction algorithm, the show’s writers have a huge problem on their hands. There’s no way for them to write any fresh stories in that universe without it all turning out contrived. With a prediction algorithm fully functional, Amaya can predict future events with 100% accuracy. This means they can then thwart anything negative that might hinder Amaya’s business. The whole concept is entirely far fetched, but it’s actually made worse by the idea of an omniscient computer system that Amaya is attempting to build. But really, would a company actually kill an exceedingly bright software engineer who is just about to give your computer full future omniscience? I don’t think so.

Omniscience is actually the bane of storytelling. If you have an omniscient being (or anything) available to see the future, then a company could effectively rule the world by manipulating historical events to their own benefit. This situation is a huge predicament for the writers and show runners.

In fact, I would make sure that Amaya’s computer is firmly destroyed within the first 4 episodes. Amaya’s omniscience can’t come to exist or the show will jump the shark. The show should remain focused on Sergei’s death and Lily uncovering it, rather than on creating Amaya’s omniscient computer. That computer becoming fully functional will actually be the downfall of the show. The espionage doesn’t need to succeed. In fact, it shouldn’t succeed. Instead, one of Amaya’s existing internal staff should be enlightened to the of danger Amaya’s management once the actual reality of Sergei’s death becomes widely known. The now enlightened staff should turn on Amaya and subvert the soon-to-be “omniscient” computer, now comprehending the magnitude of just how far their bosses are willing to take everything. That computer is not only a danger to the show, it’s a danger to that entire fictional world. Worse, though, are murderous bosses who are the real travesty here.

Any person working at a company with management willing to commit murder of its staff should at best seek to leave the company immediately (fearing for their own safety)… alternatively, some of these employees might subversively see to that company’s demise before exiting the organization. In fact, Devs should become a cautionary tale.

Technical staff always hold all of the cards at any tech company. Trusted coders and technical staff leave companies extremely vulnerable. These staff can insert damaging code at any time… code that can, in fact, take down a company from within. This is the real danger. This is where this show should head. Let’s forget all about the silly omniscience gimmick and focus on the dangers of what can happen to a company when trusted technical staff become personally threatened by their own employer. This is the real point. This is the real horror. The omniscience gimmick is weak and subverts the show. Instead, bring the staff back to reality by having them take a stand against an employer who is willing to commit murder merely to protect company secrets.

[Updated: 7/11/2020]

About a week after I wrote this article, the next episode arrived. The term “Jump the Shark” immediately pop out at me about halfway into this episode.

There’s a scene where the Devs manager, Katie (Alison Pill), walks into the room and observes two of her team watching what is effectively porn on the company’s core technology. In fact, it’s not just any porn, but famous celebrities from the past “doing it”.

I can most definitely certify that while Silicon Valley’s hiring practices are dominated by males, no manager would allow this behavior in a conference room, let alone by using the company’s primary technology. They could have been watching literally anything and this is what they chose?

I can guarantee you that any manager who found out that an employee was watching such things on a work computer would, at best, require a stern talking to and a reprimand goes into the employee file. At worst, that person is fired. Katie just shrugs it off and makes a somewhat off-handed comment as she leaves the room. That’s completely unrealistic for Silicon Valley companies. Legal issues abound in the Bay Area. There’s no way any company would risk their own existence to let that behavior slide by any employee.

Of course, having a security manager running around and offing employees isn’t something companies in SV do either.

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