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Upload and Television's Obsession with the Afterlife

Greg Daniels' new Amazon comedy is a worthy successor to shows like The Good Place and Forever.
  • Robbie Amell stars in Upload. (Amazon)
    Robbie Amell stars in Upload. (Amazon)

    The new Amazon comedy Upload comes from producer Greg Daniels, who most famously gave us the U.S. version of The Office. That show captured a very zeitgeist-y element of American life in the idea of a workplace as family, where you don't care at all about the work, and you wouldn't necessarily choose to be around your coworkers. In his new series, about a corporate-brand-dominated near future where wealth disparity has created an even more drastic separation of classes than we have now, people with financial means can buy their way into Upload, a customizable digital afterlife that offers the deceased continued existence and is even accessible by those they left behind. Once again, Daniels is touching on a particularly current fascination in pop culture: life after death as the final unexplored frontier, viewed through a quotidian comedic lens.

    From its style and subject matter, Upload brings to mind two other Amazon Prime originals: Forever and The Tick. Like The Tick, Upload finds humor in the absurd and takes a cock-eyed look at the world it's created for itself. Like Forever, the show imagines an afterlife that takes a deadpan attitude towards death, imagining it as a physical space with odd rules and peculiar geography. For Upload, this afterlife is rendered as a kind of techno-capitalist utopia for those who can afford it. Nathan (Robbie Amell) is a handsome young programmer who meets an untimely (and mysterious) death, and since his girlfriend comes from a wealthy family, she's able to purchase him access into an afterlife provided by tech brand Horizen. This afterlife takes the form of a gorgeously well-appointed hotel in the mountains, complete with unlimited five-star accommodations, provided you can foot the bill for continuous upgrades. Nathan's tech support (or "angel," in Horizen's terminology) is Nora (Andy Allo), a living woman who communicates with him through voice connection and virtual reality. It's clear from the outset that Nathan and Nora are destined for romance across the unbridgeable chasm of life and death. There's also the matter of Nathan's girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), who controls the purse strings on Nathan's afterlife, not to mention the intrigue over who or what caused Nathan's death.

    It's easy to guess at why we've suddenly become so fascinated with life after death as a source of entertainment and comedy. Back in the 1960s, as the westerns had started to die down, the old frontiers had begun to fade away but science fiction provided a gateway to a whole new world to explore. Not for nothing, the prologue to Star Trek dubbed space "the final frontier." After decades of films and TV about space travel, both plausible and not, we've become inundated with space stories. Bridging that gap into the afterlife truly feels like the last (to borrow another Star Trek-associated term) undiscovered country. Shows like Black Mirror jumped on the angle of how tech advancements might engineer afterlife possibilities, from artificial intelligence taking on the consciousness of the deceased (in "Be Right Back," the heartbreaking episode starring Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson) to the deeply romantic "San Junipero," which offered up a vision of the afterlife as a virtual world that the dying could be uploaded to.

    NBC's The Good Place, by contrast, presented afterlife not as a commodified tech advancement, but rather heaven as a result of a highly bureaucratic system that had long since gone off the rails. Like The Good Place, Upload takes advantage of its malleable reality to mine comedy from the surreal, like a child who died young trying to find a grown-up body to inhabit or an unscrupulous billionaire modeled after the Koch brothers (and played by X-Files master of the universe William B. Davis) flaunting his wealth on the other side.

    Upload doesn't linger on the more melancholy aspects of life after death the way Forever did. Deliberately paced as it was, the Maya Rudolph/Fred Armisen series went to some moody, existential places, and in one particular episode featuring Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell, it departed from its regular characters to tell a sad and longing love story. Greg Daniels, of course, knows from longing love stories, having presided over the saga of Jim and Pam on The Office. Nathan and Nora's roadblocked love story is effective, largely thanks to the winning and affecting performance by Allo, who makes Nora someone you'd easily fall in love with without sacrificing her complications or her own agency. Nathan is stuck in the fuckboy box for a while, but the show does the work of making him likable without feeling like we're all being forced to find him charming.

    Ultimately, Upload propels its romance along by embroiling itself in the great techno-corporate mystery surrounding Nathan's death, something it's surprisingly effective at. You'd expect the two halves of the show to throw one another off balance, and while the comedy could be sharper, it's an engaging show that's pretty smart in its observations about brands, tech, and class. In a pop culture universe suddenly obsessed with life after death, Upload earns its place.

    All ten Season 1 episodes of Upload drop today on Amazon Prime Video.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Upload, Amazon Prime Video, Black Mirror, Forever, The Good Place