Home Theatre: The not-so-happy ever after
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Upload, streaming on Prime Video
The idea of a virtual after-life is not new to science fiction. Most recently, Alex Garland's Devs touched on the subject, as did BBC's Doctor Who some years ago. While those shows approached the concept in a serious manner, the Amazon Original series Upload comes at it from a more satirical angle. Created by Greg Daniels, who is best known for his work on shows like The Office (US) and Parks and Recreation, Upload is a sci-fi comedy-drama set in the near future. It's the year 2033, and the technology to upload human consciousness to virtual 'heavens' has been perfected. And of course, it has been commercialised. The very first episode opens with a commercial for one of these virtual heavens, the most expensive of them, in fact — Lake View, modelled on the Grand Victorian Hotels of the US and Canada.
A large part of the show is set in Lake View, where the protagonist Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) ends up after dying in a suspicious car accident. Nora Antony (Andy Allo) is his "angel" in Lake View — something between a customer service representative and a babysitter. Nora, who is still in the land of the living, communicates with Nathan initially as a disembodied voice but soon moves to using her VR avatar. She is responsible for easing his transition from living to upload, something that is especially difficult for people who end up there unprepared. Romantic feelings soon develop between the two. To complicate matters, Nathan's rich, living girlfriend Ingrid is the one paying for his digital afterlife, and she keeps complete control over everything he does, wears, eats, and treats him, as he says at one point, like a doll. Nora also finds out that some of Nathan's memories are corrupted and it appears that his death may not have been an accident after all, giving a tinge of suspense to the show.
The world of Upload is one where capitalism has seemingly been taken to its extreme end. Everything is driven by it. This is a world where it is no longer true that you don't take your money with you when you die. The digital heavens are driven by in-app purchases. You pay a base amount that guarantees you certain free amenities, but anything beyond that requires additional payment. Naturally, there are class divides in the afterlife too. Those who cannot afford to pay for the premium packages get very basic 2 Gig uploads, which puts them in dingy rooms with hardly any comforts, let alone the luxuries of the richer guests. And then there are those who cannot even afford that and have to simply die the old-fashioned way. The tone of the series gets a bit more sober when showing this, though some of it is played for laughs, like the billionaire who spends lavishly on living like a king from medieval times with an AI chamberlain. This kind of unevenness in the tone lets the show down at times. It feels like the series hasn't quite found its voice. The jokes too don't always land. For instance, the Grey Market episode adds little value. I also had issues with the way Nora's casual sex partner, Byron's character is treated.
Upload works much better as a romcom than as satire thanks to the chemistry between Andy Allo and Robbie Amell. The way their romance develops and the conflicts that crop up all follow the classic romcom template that's familiar and relatable. But the show has the potential to be more. The world-building is quite good and makes Upload a rather immersive experience. The future doesn't just have self-driving cars, it has self-riding bicycles too! Lake View feels as real to us as it does to Nathan, and as alarming in its relentless consumerism. All of this can be used for sharper commentary than we get.
That said, Upload does make for an easy binge-watch with only 10 episodes, and all but the first one under 30 minutes long. The season ends on a cliffhanger and a second season has already been greenlit. Given Greg Daniels' track record (both The Office and Parks and Recreation had underwhelming first seasons and drastically improved after that), it is to be hoped that some of the problems will be ironed out and we get a stronger Season 2. The conceit definitely has potential, so here's hoping for a better ever after going forward.