Amazon’s Sci-Fi Comedy ‘Upload’ Finds Capitalism Extending to the Afterlife | Review

     May 1, 2020

It’s hard to believe, but Greg Daniels hasn’t created a TV show in 10 years. The mastermind behind the endlessly rewatchable NBC sitcom The Office and co-creator of the also brilliant Parks and Recreation returns at last with not one but two shows in May. One is another workplace comedy starring Steve Carell (Netflix’s Space Force), but the other is Daniels’ true follow-up to The Office and Parks and Rec: a sci-fi comedy mystery called Upload. In many ways it’s a tremendously different show from those iconic sitcoms—it’s single-camera, it’s R-rated, and it’s heavily serialized. But what it shares with Daniels’ previous shows is what makes it so compelling: despite being a story set in the afterlife tackling themes of capitalism and loss of privacy, Upload is at heart deeply human and deeply funny.

The series takes place in the year 2033, and the afterlife is not just possible, it’s profitable. Technology has been invented that allows anyone to upload their entire consciousness at their time of death, and have themselves transplanted to a digital community. They can still interact with the living courtesy of VR and phone calls, but for all intents and purposes they are now a digital file that can can continue making purchases long after time of death.

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Photo by Amazon

The show begins by following a young app developer named Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell). He’s in a relationship with a shallow yet incredibly rich woman named Ingrid (Allega Edwards), and after a freak self-driving car accident puts him near death, he chooses to have himself uploaded to Ingrid’s family’s luxurious virtual afterlife. Indeed, not all afterlives are equal, and in the world of Upload, money still determines your social status even after death.

What makes Daniels’ vision of this virtual afterlife unique is that it’s far from perfect. There are pop-up ads and in-app purchases, lag, and everything charged to Nathan’s account is controlled by his girlfriend. There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance, which is where Nathan’s “angel” comes in. An angel is really a customer service representative for this particular afterlife community, and Nathan’s rep is a charismatic yet grounded young woman named Nora (Andy Allo) who lives in New York City. The two strike up a genuine friendship, all the while a mystery bubbles over the circumstances of Nathan’s death.

Right away, the world building of Upload is pretty magnificent. Daniels wrote and directed the first couple episodes of the show, laying the foundation for how this virtual afterlife works. And again, it’s the imperfection that really makes a mark. As the show wears on, it’s clear Daniels is tackling themes of capitalism and income inequality (it’s no coincidence that Nathan’s girlfriend bears a resemblance to a certain First Daughter). Not all who die in the year 2033 can afford to be uploaded, let alone uploaded to such a fancy community. Imagine having the quality of your afterlife determined by how much money your family has left in the bank.

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Photo by Aaron Epstein/Amazon

Amell is effortlessly charming in the lead role, and while it takes a couple episodes for Nathan to become really fleshed out, the show gets there. He’s someone to root for even if he is really, really, ridiculously good looking and more than a little narcissistic. In truth, we empathize with Nathan because Nora empathizes with Nathan, and she’s really someone to root for. Allo gives a star-making turn here as a semi-rebellious Big Tech employee who can’t afford to quit her job, but also can’t really turn down a chance to stick it to ‘em whenever she can. Not entirely dissimilar from The Office’s Jim Halpert…

Speaking of comparisons, it’s impossible to watch Upload without also thinking about The Good Place. That brilliant NBC sitcom was created by Daniels’ protégé and fellow Parks and Rec co-creator Michael Schur, and also turns the afterlife into the setting of a half-hour comedy. But if The Good Place is a show about moral philosophy, Upload is more specifically a show about the ramifications of a world in which we willingly give away our private information to Big Tech companies at every turn.

The most valuable commodity in the world right now is personal data, which can be used to either sell shampoo or turn the tide of political elections. Upload is scarily familiar in terms of how that data may be used two decades from now for reasons we think are beneficial (a digital afterlife!) but are really just to make more money (capitalism!). The satirical angle is sharp and incisive here, like Daniels has years worth of frustrations he’s happy to let out. Indeed, Upload is a more adult series than Daniels’ other sitcoms. There’s nudity, swearing, and a surprising amount of blood, and while The Office tackled themes of corporatism in ways both subtle and obvious, here Daniels is really given the freedom to go there, so to speak.

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Photo by Katie Yu/Amazon

All in all, Upload is a success. It may not be as instantly iconic as Daniels’ other shows, but it’s also refreshing to see him trying something so different, and as the show wears on and begins to flesh out its ensemble, it gets better and better. There’s also a mystery angle that serves as the pretty perfect hook for the current “binge” era, and I can imagine watching all ten episodes of this first season in a single weekend. Whether it has the endurance of The Office or Parks and Rec won’t be clear for some time, but despite the big concept central to the show’s premise, deep down Upload is very much a show that’s interested in humanity—the best and worst of us, and how we persevere in the face of a stacked deck and insurmountable odds.

It’s good to have you back, Greg Daniels.

Rating: ★★★★

Upload is now streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Photo by Amazon

Television