Netflix’s bleak, cynical anthology series Black Mirror suggests that humanity is awful: its stories largely explore the ways human nature corrupts technology that was supposed to make our lives better. The recently wrapped cosmic sitcom The Good Place portrays humanity as fundamentally good, arguing that we would all be capable of personal growth if we had some help. These philosophies might seem irreconcilable, but they actually come together neatly in Amazon’s new science-fiction comedy series Upload, which premieres on May 1.
The Office co-creator Greg Daniels sold the idea for Upload, about a future where heaven has gone digital, years before Black Mirror explored the concept in “San Junipero.” He also says he doesn’t watch The Good Place, which was made by Daniels’ Parks & Recreation co-creator Michael Schur. Yet Upload feels remarkably like a fusion of the two concepts that shifts the blame for human suffering away from demons or our reliance on technology. Instead, it makes capitalism the real villain.
The show’s 10-episode first season follows Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell of The Flash), a vain coder who’s having second thoughts about his future with his rich, vapid girlfriend Ingrid Kannerman (Allegra Edwards). Their relationship gets more complicated when he’s in a terrible car accident and avoids death by being uploaded into Lake View, the swanky digital afterlife where Ingrid’s grandmother lives.
Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker imagined a legitimate digital paradise for the dying and dead when he penned “San Junipero,” with everyone capable of to choose how they look and where and when they want to live. In Upload, money can buy eternal happiness. Lake View resembles a massive lodge hotel where users can adjust the seasons based on their mood, but people who die without resources are relegated to “2G status,” living a bleak existence in a gray industrial facility where their consciousnesses are frozen for the month if they run out of data.
Nathan was working on a new solution — a way for people to build their own digital paradises like they might build Minecraft realms — but his memories of his project went missing during his upload process. The show is divided between techno-thriller and sitcom, and it’s the mystery that consistently comes up short, especially when stacked against similar elements in the striking Hulu series Devs. But Upload still delivers plenty of charm through its humor and deep ensemble cast.
Upload’s core is the romance that emerges between Nathan and Nora Anthony (Andy Allo), a “customer service angel” who lives in the physical world, but works through VR to keep Lake View residents happy. In the land of the living, Nora is dealing with a world similar to the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” where her work and dating life are often defined by how many ratings stars she can earn by interacting with other people. She’s also trying to get her dying dad to buy into the idea of a digital afterlife rather than placing his faith in a spiritual one, another plot in “San Junipero.” While they are literally a world apart, Nathan and Nora connect with a charming chemistry that forces both to confront their priorities and ask whether they can make the ultimate long distance relationship work.
While Upload’s central romance feels a lot like the constantly tested relationship between Chidi and Eleanor in The Good Place, both shows also gain much of their strength from oddball supporting casts. Nora’s coworker Aleesha (Zainab Johnson) steals every scene with hijinks reminiscent of Daniels’ work on The Office, like when she loses a thumb drive containing a client’s digital consciousness somewhere in the breakroom. William B. Davis, who played the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files, is having a grand time leaning further into cartoonish evil as David Choak, an ultra-wealthy Lake View resident who had the last black rhino killed so he could experience a virtual simulation of its flavor.
Like The Good Place, Upload has a distinctly quirky, sometimes dark sense of humor. The clearly tech-savvy writers bring realism to dramatic plots involving data security, but also throw in a pile of gags about the workings of the digital world, like an afterlife travel vlogger complaining about the recycled animation used in Lake View’s namesake lake. Luke (Kevin Bigley), a longtime Lake View resident who latches onto Nathan as his new best friend, provides plenty of material for the show’s fairly episodic plots with his knowledge of exploits, like a way for uploads to access a virtual club for the living.
But the best jokes are the barbed ones that come from the show’s commentary on the pervasive nature of late-stage capitalism. Lake View is filled with microtransactions, from the AI bellhop selling mints in the lobby to a chance to feel alive again by getting sick — on a pay-per-sneeze basis. Like the clam-chowder fountain The Good Place’s Eleanor laments should have been a dead giveaway that she was in hell, these depressingly real touches mar Upload’s virtual paradise. The show’s version of the real world is just as contaminated by commercialism, with people being guilted into upsells like traveling cases for the hard drives containing their loved ones’ digital selves.
The narrative focus on profits also lets Upload delve into complications of the virtual afterlife that “San Junipero” didn’t imagine. Ingrid controls Nathan’s real-world pursestrings, which lets her literally dress his virtual self in new outfits, as if he was a digital doll. Nora also serves as an angel to Dylan (Rhys Slack), who died as a child and wants to transition into an adolescent avatar, but can’t get approval from his parents, even as the people he knew in life leave him behind. While Upload never hits the highs of The Good Place, it does come close to replicating the charm of that show’s strange blend of philosophy and absurd comedy.
The series’ concept also lets Upload get visually creative. Lake View’s staid setting erupts into gaudy special effects when Dylan decides to duke it out with an AI, fight-game style. A pop-up-infested gray market for code brings the show into cyberpunk territory. But one of the most lingering images comes from the show’s depiction of the terrible separation between the land of the living and even the swankiest virtual realm. In a scene where Nathan and Ingrid talk to each other through a screen at Nathan’s funeral, the other side always looks vaguely grayed out and less real, depending on whose perspective the camera is on.
That divide hits home especially hard in a world where so many of us are doing most of our socializing from a virtual distance. It’s easy to sympathize with Nathan’s hope that eventually cloning might give him a way back to the real world. But there’s also hope to be found in his remote relationship with Nora, and a dismissal of Black Mirror’s techno-pessimism. Instead, Daniels and Upload’s writers embrace a more comforting vision of the world similar to that found in The Good Place. They understand that people aren’t perfect, but that they can work to be better together, no matter what strange and terrible circumstances surround them.
All 10 episodes of Upload will be available on Amazon on May 1st.