As much as I love talking about my favorite movies and TV shows, I figured I could put my video addiction in service to the public by talking about newer shows. You know, shows that you’re on the fence about. Shows like Amazon’s new vehicle, Upload. The promo trailers for this show started playing around the time that The Good Place was ending, so I assumed that this was Amazon’s attempt to fill that void, particularly since it’s set in a sort of afterlife. Whether that was the intention or not, this is a very, very different show from The Good Place. Far from being a feel good comedy that addresses philosophical and ethical topics, Upload is actually a terrifying horror series, of Black Mirror proportions, masquerading as a comedy. I’m not sure if it knows that.
Right away, we are introduced to Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell of The Tomorrow People and Code 8), an uber-vain, but otherwise all-around good guy and his fiance, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards of Briarpatch and Orange is the New Black). The circumstances are not ideal; Nathan has been involved in a serious car accident and is, apparently, dying. Luckily, he exists in a fictional world where one can upload their consciousness to a virtual reality, effectively becoming immortal. Immortal, that is, as long as the servers that contain this digital afterlife keep running; can you imagine the pressure on their IT department? This is not a cheap procedure, but Ingrid comes from a super rich family, and she not only pays for Nathan to be uploaded, but also pushes him into it. Once in the system, Nathan meets Nora (Andy Allo of Pitch Perfect 3 and Chicago Fire), a woman working for the company hosting Nathan’s consciousness, who is essentially his handler. This company, Horizon, is the stereotypical, soulless tech company, and Nora, with as much power she has over Nathan and his entire reality, is just a lowly gig worker in the real world. On top of that, her father is dying and she’s desperate to save up enough for his upload.
The comedy aspect is kind of meh. The jokes never achieve laugh out loud status, nor are they overly insightful. While the world they have built is clearly a parody of modern day society, rather coming off as witty, as scathing commentary, they are blunt and heavy handed. It doesn’t help that none of the characters are very likable. That being said, there is one element of the show that keeps me watching. The mystery. A regrettably minor character is Fran (Elizabeth Bowen of Michelle’s and No Tomorrow), Nathan’s cousin who begins to investigate his death. In her amateurish, but dogged, investigation, she begins to uncover some very suspicious clues that he may have been murdered. Little breadcrumbs of clues are doled out, stringing the viewer along. Particularly me, since it’s the only aspect of this show that I find remotely satisfying. If I tune in for season 2, and that’s a big if, to follow Fran and her investigation will be the only reason.
One of the reasons I watched in the first place is to see Robbie Amell. Not because I’ve seen any of his other stuff, except for his brief time as Firestorm on the CW show The Flash, but because looks so much like Stephen Amell, of the CW show Arrow, I thought they were brother. The last name helped that thought as well. Turns out they’re cousins, but, damn, that resemblance. Andy Allo is decent as Nora, but one has to wonder if her talents are being squandered, as she is an accomplished musician. She sings, plays both piano and guitar, and has five albums to her credit. She’s good enough to be in Prince’s band and even collaborated on writing songs with him, which I consider pretty damn impressive. I gotta give a shout out to William Davis, who plays the super rich, David Choak, Nathan’s neighbor in the afterlife. If he doesn’t sound familiar, most people probably know him as The Smoking Man, from the X-Files. Arrogant and jaded, his brutal honesty with Nathan was a nice dash of spice in an otherwise bland show and I hope he gets more screen time in the next season.
Let me revisit my claim that this show is a horror. In the first episode, in his first few moments in the afterlife, we see Nathan looking at himself in the mirror. He is annoyed to find part of his hair out of place, sticking up like a cowlick. Viewers know that this Nora’s fault, as she gave it to him while creating his avatar as part of his upload. Try as he might, he can’t get his hair to lay down. At another time, we see Nathan reach for something he wants, only to be blocked and see a message come up that he has to pay more for it, like some in game purchase. Given that he doesn’t have any money, that he is on his fiancé’s dime, he seemed resigned to a very boring existence. Lastly, we are given a peek at the low rent region of the afterlife and it is Spartan to say the least. Stark, white, windowless walls, devoid of any art or decoration, enclose a cell-like room containing only a bed, chair and bureau, also all white. Far from being a virtual paradise, Nathan has absolutely no agency. Others control how he looks, what he has access to and the very world around him. This definitely feel more like Altered Carbon than The Good Place. Except that, unlike Altered Carbon, he can’t be resleeved, he can’t be put in another body, he will never again have a physical form.
Considering this reality to its inevitable conclusion, this a terrifying form of existence, because of the implications. If this technology exists, surely less scrupulous people/corporations/governments can use it for other purposes. This is an inescapable prison, a chamber of endless and novel torture. The show makes jokes around this concept, trying to be funny, but all I can think as I am watching this is OMG, this looks like hell. Even in the concept of hell, one is put there under a judgement from God, the Almighty. In Upload, it’s a human’s decision, with all the flaws and weaknesses of our species. This thought deadens every punchline for me. It paints a very dark reality and makes no concessions to soften the blow. There’s no mention of an ethics committee, no talk of regulation by an independent body, nothing about a legal framework moderating how this technology is used.
Look, I get it. It’s a TV show, it’s parody. Why am I thinking so much? First of all, that’s what I do and I’m not going to turn that off just to watch a TV show. Second, we’ve seen trope of a virtual reality before and it usually doesn’t end well. I’ve already mentioned Altered Carbon and Black Mirror (the episodes White Bear and White Christmas embody what I am talking about perfectly), but I’ve also seen it in Cube Zero, Source Code and Inception. In fact, even in the very first episode of Upload, the reality of Nathan’s new existence drives him to almost take his own “life”. I’m a little surprised that the show came from the mind of Greg Daniels, the creator behind such shows as The Office and Parks and Rec. With all my bitching, I gotta say that it’s not that bad of a show. It’s not that great of a show, but it’s not that bad. I did watch to the end. One could do worse for a sit-com. But with my background of watching sci-fi and horror, Upload just lands too close to some of the most horrific virtual reality scenarios I’ve seen. For every joke that brings a chuckle, it’s accompanied by a chill that runs down my spine.