In quarantine, when we are most dependent on the Internet for social interactions and intimacy, Greg Daniels’ latest show, Upload , ushers us into a future, where the virtual world will no longer be an alternative, but the only source to fulfil our social needs. It, oddly, doesn’t feel like a distant future, nor does the show project it to be. The year is 2033, and humanity has figured a way out to circumvent death, and even make a profit off of it. The wealthy can upload their loved ones to a virtual world, pay for the services, talk to them, meet them and even have sex with them, while their mortal remains are frozen in the real world, in hope of resurrection. It’s a world where technology no longer aids human lives but governs it. Daniels, in his return to creating TV shows after a decade, finds humour and romance in this futuristic world, while sounding the bugle for a capitalist dystopia and the pandemic of loneliness.
Although dealing with afterlife and death, the show’s philosophical insouciance is jarring. The narrative functions on various levels: the romance between an ‘upload’ and a customer service representative, a potential murder mystery, anti-capitalist commentary, world-building and question of mortality. The show, in its 10-episode first season, tries to fit in a lot, leaving behind several threads and is unable to maintain a steady tone, even in logic. The philosophy of mortality and after-life remains shallow and unexciting.
The pilot introduces us to Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), a handsome and feckless white man, who is in a relationship with a rich, bratty white woman, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards). He dies a premature death in a ‘self-driven’ car accident and is uploaded to a luxurious virtual afterlife called Lakeview. Nora Anthony (Andy Allo) is his swarthy ‘angel’, a working-class customer service representative who is in charge of catering to his requests. While the romance, mush and the mystery of his death, is predictable, spasmodic and quite clichéd, it’s the show’s visual imagination that stands out.
Cinema and television have often speculated about the after-life, but what makes Upload relevant is that it provides a cornucopia of technological possibilities that range from silly to possible predictions. There’s a keen focus on visual details, inventiveness and funny nomenclature, infusing life into an otherwise ordinary story. Even within an artificial and plasticky setting, Daniels focuses on human emotions that transcend time. In his earlier two immensely popular shows, The Office and Parks and Recreation , Daniels brought us characters that were distinct, quirky, eccentric yet relatable. He is unable to replicate that with Upload , where the characters fall under the various stereotypes of rom-com personalities, including a goofy sex-hungry side-kick. Even the three protagonists aren’t exceptionally memorable, albeit conventionally good-looking. Perhaps a comparison to his earlier works is unfair, but keeping that aside, the show’s protagonists are still far from being remarkable.
Beyond characters, the show’s casting indicates a conscious effort to bring out New York City’s diversity, where most of the show is set. While those living in posh Lakeview are predominantly white Americans, the ones working at the customer service — the living ones — are mostly people of colour, like Nora. Beyond the obvious class and race commentary, the casting of Nathan and Ingrid as the archetype white blonde good-looking couple, is indicative of a future where privilege is still the bastion of a few. And, Nathan's frustration with his early death and inadequacy can allude to the losing relevance of the white heterosexual man in a globalised world.
Upload ’s obvious critique of a capitalist future, borrowed from an American materialistic present, adds to this reading of race, privilege and power. While the show’s philosophy definitely aligns with the Left ideology, and dare I say to Americans — socialist — worldview, the takeaways are far too obvious and often literally vocalised in dialogues. It’s set in a time when food is being printed and actual ‘bio food’ is only a luxury for the rich. Humans are rated in stars and credits, making them mere commodities and slaves of technology, and internet access can decide how happily you live, if at all. What’s striking in all of this elementary class commentary is the byproduct of loneliness. While quarantined at home and watching this show, and keeping friendships alive over texts and phone calls, Upload ’s depiction of our dependence on the screen seemed a lot more real and urgent. Even though this show would have a resonance outside this time of the pandemic, the dystopia we are living in, only compliments the grand Guignol of technology we see in Daniels’s latest creation.
Upload will drop on Amazon Prime Video on May 1