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Amazon series ‘Upload’ wonders if death was a software app

Despite an intriguing depiction of the future, ‘Upload’ is unsure of tone, oscillating between smart lines, puerile jokes and sentimental scenes

Andy Allo in a still from ‘Upload’.
Andy Allo in a still from ‘Upload’.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, thinks we are all living in a computer simulation, a Matrix-y hypothesis that would equate our current imprisoned circumstance with a particularly sadistic video-game level—but who can really argue with that? The new series Upload (streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 1 May) takes the idea of an illusory reality a step further by setting it in a future where users can choose to have their consciousness uploaded into a luxuriant afterlife simulation, a software program that lets you live out eternity in five-star comfort, complete with 24-hour technical support, everlasting youth and—of course—in-app purchases.

The concept is dynamite. It’s by Greg Daniels, the writer who took British masterpiece The Office and foolhardily adapted it for American television with surprising and enduring success. It is maddeningly, fascinatingly strange that Daniels has made a show about the other side of the final curtain, considering that Michael Schur, his long-time writing partner on The Office, recently wrapped up a beloved sitcom called The Good Place (streaming in India on Netflix) about, well, what happens after we die, and the people we meet in “heaven". Daniels’ series is a tech-centric comic mystery while Schur’s was a strikingly philosophical comedy, but they certainly belong on the same shelf.

Things get odder still when we look to Netflix and see Ricky Gervais, the man who created and starred in the original The Office, now turn up with a dark sitcom called… After Life. What in heaven’s name is going on? Are we to conclude that these shows set in the bland offices of paper-merchants were actually about purgatory all along? Are bosses David Brent and Michael Scott just stand-ins for St Peter and the archangel Gabriel? Is Gareth Keenan actually Satan? Is Creed Bratton the one true God? Come to think of it, is “That’s what she said" simply another way to say Hallelujah?

Anyway, back to Upload. The year is 2033, and Nathan has been injured in a (self-driving) car accident. His girlfriend Ingrid—who studiously avoids this eventuality by always setting her car to the “prioritize occupant" setting instead of “prioritize pedestrian", which would be the human thing to do—quickly gets Nathan’s consciousness uploaded to the swank afterlife software Lakeview. He “wakes" up, dead but digitally intact, in a plush hotel room with an expensive minibar that Ingrid has to sign off on, like a kid on a family iPhone plan with a parent paying the bills.

Nathan, who used to be a software developer, is freaked out by this pastoral resort setting, though he does appreciate the programming depth. Being informed that he will be “living in timeless Americana" freaks him out even more. “Are there slaves?" he asks, horrified, and his “angel", his tech-support human on the other end, a girl called Nora, realizes she is taken with this blandly handsome idiot despite his obvious idiocy and his lack of historical awareness.

There is much to enjoy here, from the production design—I fell in love with the automaton elegance of a self-driving bicycle—to the futuristic detailing, where meals are printed out on 3D printers and, true to form, steak doesn’t taste right when the fat-cartridge is running low. There is also an odd (but obvious) whodunit angle to the proceedings as several people suspect Nathan has been murdered—one of the suspects being Ingrid, Nathan’s gorgeous and self-involved girlfriend who gets her shoulder blades sharpened and is looking forward to eventually spending eternity with Nathan. She will join him in 60 years “if she eats right", she says, then assuring him she had ice cream for breakfast.

Despite an intriguing depiction of the future and some clever lines, Upload suffers primarily from the same bland handsomeness we see in Nathan, who worries that his funeral outfit makes him “look like a Jonas brother" and is described by a college girlfriend as a “well-adjusted freshman who got hotter every year, and by the end, had a Minor in Narcissism".

The cast is strictly okay, and the lack of diversity makes the show feel even more vanilla—especially in (inevitable) comparison with The Good Place, which headlined memorable breakout performers of different ethnicities. Here, Robbie Amell’s Nathan needed to be more charismatic, while Andy Allo plays Nora like she is doing an impression of Natalie Morales from The Middleman. Allegra Edwards, who plays Ingrid, and Zainab Johnson, as Nora’s mad-haired co-worker Aleesha, are definitely more interesting but the show doesn’t give them enough, instead trying too hard to make us root for the underbaked leads.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly what Upload wants to be: Is it a wacky mystery being solved by a likeable middle-school teacher who is “excellent at puzzles", is it a show where white dude-bros realize a third white dude-bro-to-be turns into a girl and therefore (in two scenes) understands objectification, or is it a Pixar-esque critique of the life we are heading towards, with capitalism represented as an in-app purchase?

While there is cleverness on display—one gag features an AI-bot truly and utterly helpless in the face of an image captcha—this is a show unsure of tone, oscillating between smart lines, puerile jokes and mawkishly sentimental scenes featuring Nora and her father. Yet the setup is terrific, with potential for Upload to grow into something more insightful as it eventually finds itself. We must remember that the first season of the American The Office was merely a pale imitation of something great. The Daniels magic came after.

The fact that creators of workplace comedies are now turning to the great beyond is both amusing and concerning. Is there meaning to be found in life after all, or is humanity merely meant to resemble functionality while being essentially pointless? Are we all just staplers floating in jelly?

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

Twitter - @rajasen

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