What if, after you died, you could “upload” your consciousness into a computer and spend the rest of eternity in a goosed-up residential palace filled with amenities? What if the quality of that living space was entirely based on how much money you or your family had in real life? And what if your afterlife became just another endless slog of capitalist interactions?
This is the world of Upload as envisioned by Greg Daniels, a delightful mix of his former hit series The Office’s workplace shenanigans and the endless cosmic (and comic) musings of The Good Place. The first season (I’ve seen all 10 episodes) is concerned with narcissistic Nathan (Robbie Amell), who is prodded by his vain girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) to upload into her family’s very expensive afterlife program when he unexpectedly dies in a self-driving car accident. Lakeview By Horizon has a majestic scope (it is modelled on “Grand Victorian hotels from the US and Canada”), though it is the show’s quirky features such as a self-replicating concierge (Owen Daniels), code-based tech glitches and on-demand “Angels” (aka customer service reps from the real world) that will inevitably draw references to The Good Place.
Unlike that series’ obsession with ethics and morality, Upload is principally interested in the class differences that dominate this near-future world. In addition to expected riffs on 5 star ratings, the show is filled with hilarious branding references, including Oscar Meyer Intel’s push “through the boundaries of meat”, Lean Cuisine’s sponsorship of the low-end breakfast of Lakeview’s 2 gig basement dwelling floor and, in a later episode, a quota on long-winded sales pitches of Nokia Taco Bell’s limited time Gordita Crunch taco.
The series’ keen observations of the way that corporations and brands infiltrate every day life would be terrifying if they weren’t so prescient and funny. Nathan quickly discovers that nearly every perk at Lakeview – from a new set of clothes for his avatar to the snacks in the mini-bar – has a price tag and Ingrid controls the purse strings, much to the chagrin of Nathan’s poverty-stricken mother, Viv (Jessica Tuck) and Ingrid’s incredibly privileged family. And while Nathan can still call living family and friends on his hand phone and they can visit him using VR goggles (and even touch him using hilariously doughy and uncomfortable looking real life sensory suits), his disconnect from Ingrid is quickly exacerbated by two revelations: their connection in the living world was primarily physical and he begins to form a legitimate emotional connection with his Angel, Nora (Andy Allo).
The illicit romance that develops between the pair is the backbone of Upload’s first season and it works in large part because Amell and Allo are incredibly winsome, likeable actors. Nathan and Nora have a flirtatious banter that is adorable; it’s very easy to root for them to get together. It helps to have Ingrid hanging around as counter programming because her character is so patently silly (not unlike Brazil, Ingrid is constantly undergoing ridiculous cosmetic surgeries such as bees sting facials and, in the series’ best visual gag, a couch ripping shoulder blade sharpening). That the character is revealed to be far more than a vapid stereotype is a testament to both the writers and Edwards’ performance: Ingrid is the butt of a lot of the series’ jokes, but she is also imbued with a sad depth as the season progresses.
The attention to character is one of Upload’s greatest strengths, but unfortunately it doesn’t extend beyond the show’s central trio. This is mostly because there is a whole other storyline to contend with: the mystery surrounding Nathan’s untimely death and its connection to the pitch Nathan developed with his best friend Jamie (Jordan Johnson-Hinds) for a cheaper upload alternative. Over time, Nathan discovers that he is missing key memories involving the project, which suggests a nefarious conspiracy that eventually grows to include murder plots and assassins.
While the mystery element is unabashedly connected to Upload’s exploration of capitalism, income inequality and what constitutes good quality of life, it increasingly intrudes and even disrupts the other storylines. A highly memorable character – Nathan’s cousin Fran Booth (Elizabeth Bowen) – is introduced in episode two, embarks on a brief investigation and then disappears for the entirety of the show’s back half, with barely a single mention.
Problematically every intrusion of the murder plot also results in less time for the supporting cast, which includes Nathan’s Lakeview friends – lothario Luke (Kevin Bigley) and perennial nine year old Dylan (Rhys Slack) – as well as Nora’s aloof co-worker, Aleesha (Zainab Johnson) and her shrill, hypocritical boss, Lucy. While memorable, most of these characters fail to develop beyond their one-note personalities because the show can’t afford to give them time over the murder storyline. This is particularly egregious in the final episode, which nails the Nathan/Nora romance dynamic, but detours into some pretty ridiculous high-stakes antics in order to set up a hypothetical season two.
At times it seems as though Daniels and his team don’t entirely trust that their unique vision of the world and the afterlife, as well as the incredible dynamic between Amell and Allo, is enough to keep viewers engaged. This is a shame because the world building on the show is incredible – it’s witty, playful and timely. It also feels fresh and innovative, unlike the stale murder plot that is quickly revealed to be an uncomfortable fit with the rest of the show.
Upload has the foundations of a great show, but the tension between the feel-good, comedic parts and the tired mystery parts prevent it from soaring. If we use the show’s tendency to rate everything, this first season is a mostly enjoyable 4 stars.
Upload‘s first season is available May 1 on Amazon Prime.