'Upload': TV Review

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
By turns flat and full of potential.
5/1/2020

'The Office' veteran Greg Daniels takes a darkly satirical look at capitalism and the afterlife in his new Amazon rom-com/mystery.

In addition to being a great show in its own right, Parks & Recreation has proven to be an unexpected breeding ground for funny, emotionally resonant comedies about the afterlife.

It would be easy, then, to lump Greg Daniels' new Amazon comedy Upload in with Mike Schur's The Good Place and Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard's Forever. And I'm sure I will.

When it comes to comparisons with comedies from former Daniels collaborators, though, it's possible that Upload actually has more in common with King of the Hill cohort Mike Judge's Idiocracy. Yes, Upload is focused on life after death and all of that high-minded stuff, but it's primarily a satire about late-stage capitalism, scathing and hilarious in some moments, sloppy and formless in others.

Upload is set in 2033, when technology has made it possible to upload your entire consciousness and be inserted into the digital afterlife of your choice or, rather, the digital afterlife that best fits your finances and your data plan — one in which the deceased can remain in constant contact with living loved ones.

Nathan (Robbie Amell), a computer programmer hustling to sell his big project, is nearly killed in an automated car accident and his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) offers him the chance, facing death, to be uploaded into Lakeview, a ritzy afterlife he never could have afforded otherwise. Nathan takes the offer even though he isn't sure that he especially likes the superficial Ingrid.

In no time, Nathan is discovering the highs and lows of virtual heaven, from the massage showers and easy availability of maple bacon donuts to the frustrating in-app purchases and personally tailored in-death advertisements. Nathan strikes up a friendship with his "angel," basically a customer service rep, Nora (Andy Allo), who offers afterlife assistance and brings out the best in him.

Oh, and Nathan's memories of his real life are unexpectedly glitchy. He doesn't remember that he and his business partner were working on developing a free digital afterlife program and doesn't know that that concept is threatening to enough people that his accident might not have been so accidental at all.

Narratively, there's a lot happening in Upload, which explains why the running time for episodes ranges from as long as 45 minutes — for the pilot, which has a daunting amount of backstory to convey — to as short as 23 minutes. Since the show is three or four different things at once, it isn't surprising that it does those different things with wildly different levels of effectiveness.

For example, Upload isn't all that great as a murder mystery, especially not when it wants us to take that mystery seriously, though Elizabeth Bowen has a funny arc as Nathan's aspiring gumshoe cousin. The show, which invests in so many different kinds of minutiae, barely explores what Nathan and his partner are working on or what it would represent other than a free thing that won't make less-than-altruistic companies happy. In some versions of this story, the mystery would be a series spine. Upload, thankfully, is a series that doesn't require a spine — much like how I remember countless individual jokes in Idiocracy, but if you asked me what the movie's plot is, I couldn't tell you anything.

What keeps the show going as more than just a joke-fest is that it's also a fairly sweet, budding love story between Nathan and Nora, one trapped in a virtual world and one living in the real world. Amell isn't actually funny, but he's a very good straight man, struggling to process his new home. Allo, primarily a musician previously, is shockingly natural on-camera playing out this atypical romance and also selling the spiritually interesting subplot with Nora trying to convince her father (Chris Williams) that he wants to take the virtual afterlife rather than rolling the dice on reuniting with his late wife in a more traditional heaven. Allo is the breakout here.

Much of the laughter comes from supporting players, including an effectively frivolous Edwards; Daniels' son (and Upload writer) Owen Daniels, as an AI clone who performs a number of services in Lakeview; and Zainab Johnson as Nora's best friend and customer service colleague.

The futuristic details in Lakeview and in the outside world are sometimes wonderful and often aggressively layered to reward repeat viewing, screen pausing and the rest, with a template established by Daniels' direction in the opening episodes. There are big, broad jokes, like when "Nokia Taco Bell" wants all of the angels to pitch their afterlife denizens a Virtual Gordita Crunch; tossed off punchlines, like the different merged corporations that survive in this future world; and ultra-nerdy targeted gags about the frame rates and pixel counts in this artificial world. The world-building is smart and cynical, approaching the afterlife from a haves/have-nots economic perspective that makes Upload completely different in tone from The Good Place.

Where The Good Place looked at heaven in the ethical terms of lives well-lived and who does or doesn't deserve a positive outcome, Daniels just looks at heaven as a thing you can afford, regardless of the morality of the life you lived. The show's amusing anger is in the disparity between what a Koch Brothers-esque billionaire gets and the pathetic "2 Gigs" underground space where poorer people are forced to live on reduced data and have to dine in a Lean Cuisine-sponsored cafeteria.

So maybe The Good Place, in its optimistic moments, offers an idea of heaven as we wish it might be and Upload, in its more pessimistic moments, offers an idea of the afterlife as we fear it might be. It's probably not as good as The Good Place, but it's got plenty of laughs and ideas to make you think.

Cast: Robbie Amell, Andy Allo, Kevin Bigley, Allegra Edwards, Zainab Johnson
Creator: Greg Daniels
Premieres Friday (Amazon)