You can’t tell viewers how to watch something. Everyone will always come to things with their own needs and perspectives, and trying to police the way someone else watches All in the Family or Breaking Bad or Jane the Virgin is an exercise bound for failure. (Even though it frustrates me when someone’s out there watching, say, Mrs. America in a way that I think is wrong.) Sometimes, though, the ambiguity about what a show is trying to be and how to watch it comes from deep inside the show itself.
That’s what’s happening with Upload, the new Amazon afterlife series from Greg Daniels. It looks like, sounds like, and often acts like a comedy. It’s got jokes! It’s got a familiar brightly colored palette, a light emotional touch, and a run time that generally hovers around the half-hour mark. It’s also a show from Greg Daniels, who is most famous for The Office and exclusively as someone who makes TV comedies. Obviously it’s a comedy! But the best way to watch Upload is to mostly ignore the comedy-shaped things, or to treat them as window dressings that are secondary to its main goal. Upload, at its heart, is a more cuddly looking Black Mirror.
Upload is about a man named Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) who dies and is uploaded to a “digital afterlife program.” He can still call and chat with his living friends and family, and he can see what’s happening in the living world on giant screens. But while the technology does exist to upload his consciousness to this afterlife mainframe, there’s no good technology yet to download deceased people back into physical bodies. Nathan, and everyone else who paid for server space on one of the afterlife programs, is stuck in a digital world created by a megacorporation. It’s meant to fulfill his every desire — as long as Nathan or one of his loved ones can still pay for it.
That’s not an especially funny premise, but Upload does quite a bit of tap-dancing to disguise how bleak everything is. The show gets mileage out of the absurdity of trying to have a long-distance relationship with a dead person. Nathan and his girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) try to have sex, which involves real-life Ingrid wearing a ridiculous neoprene suit full of sensor fingers that can receive and transmit sensation. Watching a woman in an overinflated scuba suit act out a sexual encounter with empty air is funny! (Ish.) There’s humor in Nathan’s dead neighbors, who include a ghoulish Koch-brothers knockoff, a kid who’s frustrated that he’s been frozen in prepubescence, and a classic sitcom tries-too-hard type. Upload also finds joke material in the futuristic beauty industry loved by Nathan’s girlfriend. In one scene, Ingrid has had a shoulder-blade-sharpening procedure, and she suddenly realizes they’re now too sharp. Unwittingly, she leans back on a sofa and slices into the cushions.
None of the comedy is all that great, though. That’s at least a little to do with the performers, especially Amell, who’s serviceable as Nathan but not bringing anything to this project that’s not already on the page. His afterlife concierge Nora (Andy Allo) is stronger, but she’s typically put in the position of straight woman. But you can’t escape the sense that Upload doesn’t actually care about the comedy. There’s no oomph to it! It feels like an afterthought to the thing Upload actually wants to say: that megacorporations are monetizing every single human experience; this has dramatically exacerbated the chasm between rich and poor; instead of being an equalizing force, technology has made it all much worse. The best way to approach Upload is not as a funny story about the afterlife. It’s best as a show that asks what would happen if Jeff Bezos could add “heaven” to the services offered by Amazon Prime.
It would be bleak as hell, is the answer! In the most explicitly miserable piece of world-building, Nathan can’t access any of the services offered in his premium afterlife world until his girlfriend approves them, because she’s the account holder. At one point Nathan goes to visit the “2 gig-ers,” denizens of a shady realm who are allowed to still exist — their post-death consciousnesses have been saved on the server — but can only pay for two gigabytes of data a month. Their existence is subject to data caps. They’d certainly be allowed to live more, but only if they can pony up for an unlimited plan.
Upload is the latest in a trend of afterlife shows, all of which have looked like comedies on the surface and actually been mostly something else. The Good Place is a comedy about morality and what it means to be a good person. Forever is the least explicitly comedic of the group, but it stars Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, and it starts from the idea that two people who don’t really like one another any more still have to spend eternity together — a sitcom premise if ever I’ve heard one. All three of them are linked by the way they use afterlife stories as gateways to something else, and their insistence on comedy as an opening gambit to create some audience buy-in for stories about intensely sad, serious topics.
Unfortunately for Upload, though, its comedy shell is at odds with what the show seems to actually care about. Where The Good Place let comedy be the gentle happy-making entry point to its more existential questions, Upload won’t let people laugh when its main question is “How will we as a human species survive corporate intrusion into every aspect of our lives?” I don’t begrudge the show the effort; Black Mirror would be a better show if it could figure out how to leaven its ceaseless pessimism with more humor, and Upload is a better show for making the attempt. But it never quite nails the synthesis between the two. It’s too relentlessly sad for the humor to work, and none of the humor is quite as sharp as Ingrid’s dangerous shoulder blades.
Even if it’s useless to insist anyone watch TV in a certain way, my recommendation is that you go into Upload knowing that it’s grim, and that the best thing about the series is its ability to imagine some truly dismal things about humanity. The show plays best as a nightmare.