Greg Daniels dreams up a perfectly imperfect portrait of a heaven owned by shareholders. Don’t worry; it’s also funny.
The afterlife is what you make of it, but in the case of Upload, that’s only true if you can afford a heaven worth downloading. Greg Daniels has had his hand in some of the most successful TV comedies of all time, including The Simpsons, King of the Hill, The Office, and Parks and Recreation, and for his latest trick, Daniels has found a similar ensemble charm again. New to Amazon Prime Video, Upload is a satire about adjusting to humanity’s data-driven version of the Good Place.
Set 13 years in the future, people all over the world now have the option to “upload” their consciousness to a computer simulation before they die. Think The Matrix meets Ready Player One by way of Brazil. All of these virtual worlds are owned by massive corporations, which means there are “in-app” purchases for you to “upgrade” your experience… while you’re dead. That mini fridge in your room? You’ll have to pay extra for what’s inside, but the people still alive back in the real world will have to front the bill.
That all might sound like a lot of Black Mirror episodes rolled into one dystopia narrative, and in some ways that ismore or less the case. But the many delights of Upload are in its futuristic predictions and enjoyable characters—er, avatars. We mainly follow the story of Nathan (Robbie Amell), a coder whose rich girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), convinces him to “upload” after a near-fatal autonomous car crash. Nathan tries to relish whatever he can about this new virtual reality since his true body has been vaporized. He’s literally lost his head and there’s no way of coming back to his old life. Welcome to Lakeview, an Americana afterlife designed mainly for senior citizens looking for a calm day-to-day existence.
Soon, Nathan discovers the obvious shortcomings of a virtual world he has no real control over, especially when he can’t make money or be financially independent. His outlook slowly evolves, however, with the assistance of Nora (Andy Allo), his assigned “Angel” who serves as a glorified tech support agent with 47 other clients in reality. She also has her own narrative involving her tech-averse father (Chris Williams) who refuses to “upload” despite his terminal illness, for fear he’ll miss out on the “real” heaven.
As the two bond, Upload shifts from basic corporate satire into a more dramatic mystery surrounding the circumstances of Nathan’s car accident. And to make matters worse, Nathan can’t even break up with Ingrid for fear that she might actually delete him. Like The Good Place, Upload is all about a set of interesting, sometimes even compelling “rules” that the show has to distort and break in order to surprise the viewer. It often succeeds.
The show can get a bit tiresome with its sheer number of “yikes, capitalism” story threads, but Daniels and his creative team weave otherwise pessimistic ideas into humorous scenes. (One, for example, includes a gag involving a “travel agency” for the afterlife.) The show never lays out its social commentary with pretense, and it consistently demonstrates how the ills of a corporate-owned heaven cause people to suffer and opt for something better.
Like The Good Place, Upload is all about a set of interesting, sometimes even compelling ‘rules’ that the show has to distort and break in order to surprise the viewer. It often succeeds.
Granted, the reveals won’t be jaw-dropping for seasoned watchers, but Upload doesn’t use its narrative solely for delightful revelations. Instead, it keeps things moving along as good first seasons do, slowly introducing new concepts and characters that will mostly pay off later. By the tenth and final episode, it’s hard not to yearn for an immediate second season that will inject even more imagination and special effects into this world.
Lakeview is a transparently basic idea of a virtual world made necessary by the constraints of a show in search of a big, devoted audience, but there’s seemingly no limit to what the show runners might be able to achieve with an even higher budget. For my money, it’s already a digital experience worth streaming again and again.
Upload hits the cloud this Friday, May 1 on Amazon Prime Video.