Greg Daniels is a name synonymous with some of the most successful US TV ever produced. A long time staff writer on The Simpsons with some true classics to his name (Homer and Apu, 22 Short Films About Springfield); co-creator of King of the Hill and US take on The Office and co-creator of Parks and Recreation with Michael Schur, who went on to create the incredibly successful afterlife themed comedy, The Good Place. And it’s in direct comparison with his old writing partner that Daniels now places himself with afterlife themed comedy, Upload.
Lakeview by Horizon! It’s the perfect place to spend your afterlife…if you can afford it. On Thanksgiving, Nathan Brown, a self-absorbed, weak-willed coder bro, is the victim of a self-driving car accident. Luckily, before he dies he’s given the opportunity to have his consciousness scanned by afterlife service provider Upload and he wakes up in Lakeview, a virtual reality afterlife where your digital consciousness lives on.
To help him adjust, Nathan (Robbie Amell, The Flash’s Firestorm) is provided as a customer service rep, an ‘angel’ (Andy Allo), to help guide him and to offer advice. But Lakeview is not quite as perfect as it seems, plagued with the same sorts of technical issues as any online services: bandwidth restrictions, buffering, frame-rate drops, in-app purchases, and, worse, memory corruption.
Treading a fine line somewhere between Black Mirror and The Good Place (with a little Total Recall mixed in for good measure…well, measure, anyway) Upload is Greg Daniels' latest project, a 10-part comedy drama that splits its time between being a dark satire, a traditional romantic comedy and a clichéd mystery – for anyone wondering, that’s in descending order of effectiveness. The world of Upload is a well observed take on the current state of the tech industry with its Ts&Cs, freemium business models, 5-star service ratings and friendly public faces on giant, merciless corporate machines.
There’s no denying that the show is engaging, but its tone waivers, lurches even,[...]from scene to scene
The idea of paid service vs open platform is an interesting one to explore, as is the creepy power dynamic between him and his girlfriend, who just happens to be paying for Nathan’s continued existence and from both of these situations the show draws a lot of pretty dark laughs and the darker the joke, the more fun the show seems to pull out of it. Rentable VR sex suits and the reveal that “bringing protection” now means a stick-on body cam to record consent are some early examples of this grim and razor-sharp sense of humour.
The further you get into the series, the darker it dares to go, and these elements are where Upload is at its most compelling and most enjoyable. Propping up these ideas and jokes is a romantic comedy subplot involving a love tringle between Nathan, his self-obsessed and controlling girlfriend and his new ‘angel’, Nora which pulls itself along with some paint-by-numbers but enjoyable execution. If that was the cut-and-thrust of the show, then maybe… but it isn’t.
Nathan’s accident, it turns out, was more of an “accident” and it’s here that the show starts to become rote. From the moment it is introduced, it feels like the mystery starts to burden the concept. There’s no denying that the show is engaging, but its tone waivers, lurches even, in the early episodes from scene to scene, giving the impression that it doesn’t really know what kind of show it is. When it finally does pick a lane around the halfway mark, it’s arguably the wrong one.
What buoys the show up is the sweet chemistry between Nathan and Nora. The emotional engagement between them comes on too strong, too suddenly, and there initially seems an incompatibility between Nathan’s vanity and his kindness but Amell and Allo carry it with ease.
Series highlights also come from William B. Davis, better known as the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man on The X Files, playing snarky deceased billionaire David Choak and Kevin Bigley as Luke, a serviceman disillusioned with undeath, both of whom pull out some of the later season laughs. What weighs it down are jokes which fall flat, an unnecessary lean into women being ‘hilariously’ topless and two-dimensional characters who magically transform into fully rounded people and back again when it suits the show.
It doesn't help either, that the later episodes take a lot of goodwill and blow it all away with some ridiculous plot development, some melodrama, and a very silly Deus Ex Machina.
… legitimately good for some of its run
Upload began development nearly three years ago, when Amazon gave Daniels the opportunity to develop an afterlife themed comedy series exactly one year after the air of the first episode of Michael Schur’s Netflix/NBC mega hit The Good Place and his Black Mirror episode about how rating human interactions can deeply affect lives. I present these facts without comment for you to draw your own cynical conclusion.
Regardless of the circumstances of development, it’s almost unavoidable that Upload is going to be placed in contrast with these two titans of programming which is unfortunate because, while Upload is legitimately good for some of its run, it never reaches the heights of either absurd comedy or dark incisiveness of its predecessors. The ideas, if not the overarching plot, are well constructed and presented but it just feels like we’ve seen them all before, slightly better, quite recently.
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