My TV-watching has been all over the place since the beginning of the pandemic. It started with large, therapeutic doses of the Great British Bake Off, alternating with virus classics like Contagion and Outbreak – both terrific, and well-endowed with discussable ethical content. Translated into real world events, when I watched them, the question would be: should we quarantine or nuke New York, harming millions, but saving billions? Now that my own city of Dallas is a hotspot, I find this question considerably less entertaining.
After exhausting the supply of virus movies, we moved on to more campy disaster and doom movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Train to Busan. Then there were the weeks when we took the high road, with a Great Foreign Film series and a Great American Film series. We’ve seen a lot of Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland, plus some westerns, some episodes of Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, and even Gunsmoke. And most obsessive of all, there were several weeks of non-stop Madmen watching.
Most philosophical of all this fare has been Devs, a series about free will and determinism, and Dark, a series about time travel. I had high hopes for Devs. The creation of Alex Garland, director of the extraordinary movie Ex Machina, the show is about a tech company with a mysterious division called … Devs, which is led by a tormented genius named Forest. A brilliant coder (Sergei) jumps on the chance to work at the Devs compound, but he dies within 24 hours, leading his girlfriend Lily to investigate.
It turns out that the Devs computers can retrodict the past, as the philosophers say. That’s the philosophically interesting part, not how they manage to display the past on giant screens. They just do. You can watch Jesus on the cross, or Marilyn Monroe in bed with Joe DiMaggio, depending on your taste. But in principle they should also be able to predict the future, and yes, they can do that too. Forest and a girlfriend have seen the future already – up to a point. What are they up to? Why did Sergei die?
We know what ensues will have something to do with the death of Forest’s young daughter, whose giant likeness towers over the Devs compound. As Lily’s investigation continues, goons working for Forest and Russian spies get involved, providing excitement and relief from conceptual thorniness. But for many episodes the show is outright philosophical. If the world is deterministic, Forest has already seen what Lily is going to do as the future unfolds. He’s also seen what he’s going to do. Can any of them do otherwise? What’s it like to go ahead and do something, having known ahead of time you were going to do it?
Unfortunately, these interesting questions get muddled eventually, as the drama veers into another section of the intro to philosophy syllabus – in fact, two more sections. Too briefly, it’s about subjective experiences and whether they’re uploadable, and how we can tell the difference between virtual reality and real reality. And these issues are not explored nearly as well.
By contrast, the series Dark, a German Netflix production, is always about one thing – time travel. The show’s basic set-up has an uncanny resemblance to Stranger Things, another Netflix multi-season hit. There’s a rural community next to a large, ominous energy plant. There are children – older children, in this case – whose lives are disrupted by dark forces. Dark has an ingenious way of flitting from character to character, as if the main character is really the community, and no single person in it. The doom-filled music and creepy images behind the credits will definitely distract you from the day’s newspaper headlines.
I love the simplicity of the way you get to the past in this movie. I won’t be giving away much if I say that you walk there – by entering a cave. There are all sorts of delicious complexities and strange connections between the characters, making this a puzzle show. You have to watch very closely and put the show on frequent pause, so you can try to wrap your mind around what just happened. If you watch, you’re going to be thinking a lot about doubles – two of a person living at one time, with different ages – and you’ll be doing a lot of thinking about how they came to be, and whether they are really possible.
In dramatic form, the show explores the juiciest questions about time travel. I won’t be too specific, because there’s nothing worse than spoilers (except for the coronavirus). But we get many versions of the question whether changing the past is possible, if it would change the future in such a way that the trip to the past is rendered impossible. We are made to feel these questions as palpable and existentially important ones, not so much asked to work on them. However, watching this show may make you want to think about them carefully (perhaps with the help of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which has a thorough, very clearly written entry on the subject).