Greg Daniel’s new Amazon exclusive sci-fi sitcom is based on a familiar sci-fi idea.
What if, in the future, you could transfer your consciousness into a computer and live forever? Would you really love having eternal life as much as you think you would? Or worse yet, how would the corporation who owns the tech needlessly complicate your virtual life to make its money? Could you interact with the living? What would happen if a living person fell in love with an “upload?”
These are all the questions running throughout Upload’s first season. And while these aren’t new to sci-fi, I get the sense Daniels pitched the idea by saying, “yeah, but have you seen the sitcom version?”
Don’t take me the wrong way, I like sci-fi and I like sitcoms, so I’m about as close to the target audience for this show as anyone. But it may seem pretty “out there,” for others.
Daniels, the creator (adapter?) of the American version of “The Office” (Ricky Gervais would also go on to make a show about the afterlife… sort of), is clearly in a sci-fi kick lately. He’s got Upload for Amazon and Space Force for Netflix. I wonder what he’s cooking up for Hulu, or AppleTV, or… you know what, nevermind.
Upload is about Nathan (Robbie Amell), a charming, but not particularly well off man in a bad relationship with Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), a rich woman who provides everything for him, including the money required to upload his consciousness into a virtual afterlife called “Lakeview.” That is, of course, after a self-driving car autopilots itself into an accident that puts him on his supposed deathbed.
Lakeview is a picturesque lakeside resort setting that seems nice, but strange. Not because it’s a bad location to spend eternity, but I would think the virtual afterlife would have been designed around each individual’s personalized heaven rather than a more one-size-fits-all sort of setting. But it was at this point I had to stop myself. I was clearly asking the types of questions about the concept I wasn’t supposed to.
But I digress.
Once at Lakeview, Nathan meets Nora (Andy Allo), his “angel,” or customer service representative. She’s attractive and clearly into him, and she’s clearly a better match for Nathan than Ingrid. But there’s still the question whether or not he should leave his girlfriend – after all, she is footing the bill for his afterlife. It’s like the Jim and Pam situation in the first few seasons of The Office, but way more complicated.
I won’t lie, I was not into what Daniels was doing in the first episode. I didn’t find it funny. In fact, I found the attempts at humor more cringe-worthy than anything else. I also didn’t find any of the characters particularly likable. I even found the concept a bit underdeveloped.
But once I had made it to the end of the 10 episode season, I came to the conclusion that Upload overcomes this rather clunky first episode, and even makes a solid case for a second season.
I suspect the reason things got off to a slow start is due to how concept-driven it is. It takes several episodes worth of setup before things are really allowed to feel like they’re moving at a natural pace. There’s even a very slowly developing mystery that starts to form, but doesn’t really make itself apparent until a few episodes in.
Daniels seems content to jump as quickly as possible into the virtual afterlife that he also never fully establishes the rules of this futuristic universe. “The Office” didn’t require any table setting because it’s a setting anyone can identify with. But the future-world of “Upload,” with it’s virtual afterlife, begs to be questioned.
For instance, the first episode makes a point of how rushed the decision is to upload Nathan. He’s given the choice to either chance it in the emergency room to see if he pulls through with the risk of dying for good, or go straight to upload and live forever. But later in the season we meet a young child who says he fell to his death at the Grand Canyon. It seems unlikely there’d be a chance to have uploaded him before he died from that. But “Upload” is full of these sorts of apparent mistakes that break the continuity of the universe.
There’s even a giant, unmissable beam of light centrally located in Lakeview that we’re told is where people who can’t adjust to the virtual afterlife go to commit digital suicide. The coders working as “angels” for the residents at Lakeview even discuss the rather high percentage of people that don’t make the adjustment as if it’s a blackmark on their record. But apparently Daniels never stopped to wonder what the in-universe reason would be for even having such a giant death beam in the first place. And after the first episode or two, it’s forgotten completely.
At times “Upload” also feels like a 2019-2020 buzzword salad, taking on everything from toxic masculinity, to sexual consent, to self-driving cars, to invasive digital advertising, to corporate greed, to dating apps, to in app-microtransactions, to vaping, to technological surveillance and invasion of privacy, and… well you get the idea.
Most of these things get little more than a joke without much deep analysis, but it’s enough to be able to say there’s an effort to be “relevant.” I’ll rephrase that to say, thankfully the show doesn’t make the mistake of bludgeoning us over the head with some of these “themes.”
The part that works the most, and is the clear crux of the show, is the romance that brews between Nathan and Nora. If the heart of “The Office” was the will-they-won’t-they romance between Jim and Pam, “Upload’s” romance is its heart as well.
Andy Allo gives a charming performance as Nora. It’s hard not to root for her. Nathan took a bit more time to warm up to, but Robbie Amell makes the material work better as the season goes on. There are side characters, but few of them stand out or get much development. They play more like caricatures designed for comic relief rather than real people. But if anyone can create likable ensemble casts, it’s Greg Daniels. It may just take another season or so before any of them become that memorable.
If there’s anything to glean from this, it’s that Daniels likes to set a love triangle at the heart of his shows. And as long as that’s working, he can dabble in other areas along the way. The only problem with that is the aforementioned way it can sometimes cause problems in the logic of the sci-fi setting.
He clearly doesn’t intend for the viewer to think too hard about certain sci-fi elements, which almost makes me wonder why Daniels chose a sci-fi setting at all.
Despite its listing as a comedy, Upload is far better at being a drama, that is of course unless you find fart jokes and dancing elicits laughs. I found very little of it to be all that funny. But its central romance and commentary on modern technological issues work well enough to stick with.
Season one certainly leaves plenty more to be explored in a second season. And despite its flaws, Upload does enough right to warrant one.