What if you died, but you got a second chance to make things right?
If that premise immediately makes you think of sitcom favorite The Good Place, Amazon's new show Upload is only superficially similar, focusing instead on an afterlife where humans are digitally uploaded into a virtual world. It's not exactly paradise, though. In this version of heaven, you have to spend money on in-app transactions, if you want to upgrade the quality of your time after death.
Upload comes from The Office US executive producer Greg Daniels, a phenomenally successful TV writer whose past work usually focused on bringing humor out of mundane situations. As well as developing The Office, Daniels co-created Parks and Recreation, worked on The Simpsons during its golden '90s years, and co-created the even more down-to-earth King of the Hill. Compared to all of those, Upload is a much more high-concept sitcom. But he actually came up with the core idea many years ago.
"I've actually been working on this project for a crazy long period of time," Daniels says. "I had the first notion when I was a young comedy writer employed at Saturday Night Live, which is a sketch comedy show, and I was walking around New York trying to think of ideas for that show. And I walked past an electronics store, and they were just introducing compact disc players, that's how long ago this was. There was a lot of advertising about digital versus analogue, and I started thinking, well what could you digitize? What would be the ultimate thing that you could digitize? And I thought, well, I guess it would be yourself. Could we ever live inside of a computer, and what would that be like?"
Daniels believed that such digital life would allow human beings to customize their own afterlife to their preferences. The premise stuck in his mind, but the idea was a little big for an SNL sketch. Daniels kept revisiting the idea in the intervening years. "I put it in my notebook and at various times at my career, I'd taken it out and tried to write it as a short story or a novel. During the [Writer's Guild of America] strike in 2008, I was writing it as a novel. It has been gestating for a long period of time."
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In Upload, which is set in the near-future, hard-partying coder Nathan (Robbie Amell) dies in an automated car crash. As he nears death, he's pressured by his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) to sign a document that consents his digital self can be uploaded into the afterlife. It's here that he meets Nora (Andy Allo), who acts as a kind of moderator of this digital environment. In subsequent episodes, Nathan attends his own funeral and realizes he's captive in death to his still-living girlfriend. It dawns on him that his past life wasn't as good as he believed it was.
In addition, he discovers what wealth inequality begins to look like in the afterlife. Nathan's comfy afterlife is bankrolled by his partner, which puts him in a position where he has almost no power. He sees what happens to people who die, but don't have the money to pay for niceties in this world. Alongside all of this, a silicon valley-themed mystery plot begins to unfold, suggesting that Nathan's death probably wasn't an accident after all.
The idea of an afterlife controlled by a tech company finally gave Afterlife some shape for Daniels. He took inspiration from an unlikely source. "[My kids] were playing a game called Club Penguin, which is a virtual reality game where you're a little penguin and you have your own igloo that you live in. You have to try and collect coins, and furnish your igloo, etcetera. And there's in-app purchases.
"And when I saw the in-app purchases, I thought 'that's what it would be like!' If an actual tech company would be able to create a virtual world you could live in after your actual physical body [died], they would charge you for everything. That became the comedic aspect that opened the show up for me."
Purgatory, with microtransactions?
The afterlife presented in Upload is not quite heaven or hell, though. "I don't consider this to be a utopian or dystopian vision," Daniels says. "It's some sort of a middle-topian vision where there's a lot of promise, but also a lot of foolishness and greed that comes in with the various tech."
Daniels cites Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her as inspirations on the tone of the show. Over the course of the series, Nathan and Nora begin to grow closer, and Nora brings more likable sides out of Nathan's character. Since Nathan is dead and Nora is not, their relationship exists entirely in this digital space.
Nora's employer, this big tech company that controls the afterlife, awards her Uber-style ratings based on her office interactions. The tricky thing is, she needs a high rating to be able to affordably guarantee her sick father's comfort in the afterlife.
"From a satiric standpoint, there's a lot about income inequality [in Upload]," Daniels says. "Like human society, it's created by people, and it has all the downsides of human society in terms of unequal distribution of resources and the unfairness of the fact that, for instance, Nora is struggling to be able to upload her dad. Other people are enjoying the perks. That's part of the satire, as well as the fact that, in the future, we've neglected the Earth. If you want to see nature, birds and beauty, it's mostly in this virtual world because the people have neglected the real world so much that there are no birds left."
Nathan takes a few episodes to get to like, but this is by design (Amell is slightly too handsome to be an everyman). He starts to win you over when he begins building a relationship with Nora, and you start to uncover why someone might've wanted him dead. "When I first read the script, I liked the fact that he starts off as a bit of a douche," Amell says. "He's on top of the world, or at least he thinks he is. He's got a hot girlfriend, he's got a business. He was partying, going to clubs and doing his work.
"He thought that was living, which I think a lot of people can get stuck in that kind of routine, where you think that's what life is all about. It takes meeting somebody like Nora after dying for him to realize he wasn't really living that great a life, and that there's so much more to it, even though he's not there anymore."
Daniels characterizes Nathan as an underperformer who you suspect could be doing better. "It's a little bit tricky to write somebody like that. But this is so important to the theme: that he starts off as a shallow person, and then gets a second chance by being uploaded to live a life that's more authentic and has more meaning to it, by finding a different person to fall in love with from the more shallow physical relationship he had to begin with."
While Upload was clearly written well before our current global health crisis, it's ended up being accidentally prescient at a time where many people can only connect with their partners digitally. "I think that if you summed up our show, it's that people are using science and love to try to overcome death," Daniels says. "There's an added poignancy and a yearning now, even though the show is certainly not written about this. But some of the desire of the characters feels extra poignant now."
The first season of Upload is released on Amazon Prime Video worldwide from Friday 1 May.