Greg Daniels’ new comedy Upload asks a uniquely 21st century question – what if, in the near future, we could pay to upload our souls on to a cloud, where we could continue to participate in the lives of our loved ones after our death?
The year is 2033, and Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), a computer programmer on the cusp of something very promising, is involved in a self-driving car accident. At the hospital, his girlfriend, the fabulously wealthy Ingrid (Allegra Rose Edwards), gives him the option of being “uploaded” to Lakeview, a swanky afterlife that looks like a resort in the mountains. And before you know it, Nathan is off in his afterlife, surrounded by people with far too much money, with far too much time on his hands – so much, that he falls in love with his underpaid, extremely human, customer service angel, Nora (Andy Allo) and has to confront some questionable ethical choices from his past.
Upload is a more cynical take on the afterlife than, say, The Good Place. The guests in the afterlife encounter an AI (played by a surprisingly funny Owen Daniels) to help them with everyday tasks, and customer service representatives for everything else. In this vision of the world, corporates have merged into monster super-companies – Nokia-Taco Bell, anyone – who pepper the world with advertisements and not-so-subtle messages. There are physical pleasures, of course – great food, fancy bathrooms, the possibility of a real life human renting a VR suit to have sex, therapy with talking Labrador Retrievers – but each of these must be paid for in real life dollars, earned in the real world. You even have the option of rating your customer service, to help the company ‘improve.’
And outside the afterlife, humans (“us meat folks,” as Nora gently reminds Nathan) continue to work underpaid, undervalued jobs to save up for the afterlife. In one storyline that could be a metaphor for pretty much any kind of gig work, Nora tries to get an employee discount to save up enough to upload her father, but can only do so if her services provide her a rating of 4.8 or above from her customers. Heck, in this version of the universe, even sex is a commodity – Nightly, the show’s version of Tinder is clearly just a hook up app that also allows you to rate the said hook up.
Now, unlike Space Force, Daniels is on to something with Upload. Like his Office collaborator Michael Schur’s The Good Place, Upload uses comedy to ask some difficult questions. What if we take capitalism and the commodification of work to its logical conclusion? What if we allow every part of our lives – home lives, sex lives, our deepest thoughts and memories – to be part of a cloud, provided by a service that depends almost entirely on ratings by its users? The final seasons of The Office and Parks and Recreation did bring up surveillance capitalism and unscrupulous companies in different ways, so it perhaps isn’t surprising that Upload would go one step further.
And so there are some great gags – an AI stumped by a CAPTCHA, a grandmother whose avatar is based on a photo from 1961 and therefore appears in black-and-white, a customer service angel filling in for a ‘missing’ human. The trouble is, the show relies on standalone jokes, rather than more well developed comic ideas for laughs. This works some of the time. Zainab Johnson and Kevin Bigley share a great chemistry as frustrated-angel and human-hacking-the-system on the afterlife. Others are less successful. Allegra Rose Edwards’ Ingrid is spoilt, shrill, very wealthy, and unlikeable – but not so much that she’s actually funny.
Upload does show real insight is in its social commentary – Dylan, the 12-year-old uploaded after an accident, whose mother won’t let him grow out of his body, or the smugly cheerful gay couple who catch colds only to feel something, or even Nathan’s growing frustration at his dependence on his girlfriend’s credit card for pretty much anything in his afterlife. It’s just that, clever as it is, it just isn’t all that funny, y’know?
All things considered, Upload is eminently bingeable – just funny enough to keep you engaged, but not the groundbreaking comedy of The Office. And speaking of the Office, Daniels’ shows do have a way of coming into their own in Season 2 – we might just be in for a treat.
Upload is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.