Inventive New Comedy 'Upload' Explores (Virtual) Life After Death

May 1, 2020

We hardly get to know the lead character of new sci-fi comedy Upload — and the world of the near future in which he lives — before he stops living.

When Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) dies in a freak accident involving his self-driving car, his wealthy girlfriend puts up the money to have his memories and personality uploaded into a lookalike avatar. Nathan's avatar resides in what now passes for his eternal after-life. It's a world made by a giant corporation — one of several competing to offer people an alternative to dying in the natural way, and dealing with whatever does or doesn't come next.

One of the many brilliant concepts in Upload is that series creator Greg Daniels envisions his imaginary world as a place where this transition from "bio" to "upload" is predominantly a financial transaction. The more you can afford, the better your computerized afterlife. Because his girlfriend's family literally owns the place, Nathan gets to live with the one-percenters — whether he wants to or not.

Upload explores both the computer-generated Lake View and the "real" world of 2033, which is when the series begins (and when Nathan dies). In both places, the details — comic and otherwise — are crammed into each frame like panels from a drawing in Mad Magazine. The closer you look, the more you'll find.

In the "real" world, one character has a "vintage" political poster on her wall supporting the 2024 political ticket of "Oprah and Kamala." In the afterlife of the avatars, residents can twist a dial to adjust the seasons of the gorgeous view outside their window — kind of like changing the background on a Zoom meeting. Breakfast buffets are loaded with endless treats — but, like most of the things in these for-profit virtual realities, you have to pay extra to get what you want.

In Nathan's case, his girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) controls his budget, and decides, as each purchase request comes to her account, whether or not to indulge him. There even are ways for the virtual and real worlds to interact. Nathan is guided by Nora (Andy Allo), a client support technician back in the real world. Nora serves as his personal Siri or Alexa, and is able to visit his world as her own temporary avatar.

And Ingrid and Nathan can see each other by visual computer links, watching and talking on monitors. That's an accidental, extra-creepy touch; watching them reach out to each other, trying to connect only through TV screens, suddenly feels much too familiar.

But this new TV comedy without a laugh track does more than just create inventive new worlds. Like The Good Place, it's full of thoughtful questions and challenging ideas — even about the meaning of life itself and of death itself. Upload also holds up to comparisons with episodes of Black Mirror, covering the worlds within worlds of avatars and computerized identity. And to similar themes in Westworld, and the movie Her.

And very quickly, Upload reveals itself to have even more layers. It's a love story, with Nathan and Nora extremely attracted to one another, but fighting seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And before long, Nathan begins to suspect that the freak accident that killed him was no accident at all. That turns this sitcom into a mystery series, as Nathan and others set out to solve his own murder.

I love Upload because it's so smart, so funny and so imaginatively complicated. It may sound like a paradox, but watching a TV show right now about a character who feels confined and helpless and trapped – in these troubled days when many of us share those same feelings – turns out to be a wonderful way to escape.

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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Former "Saturday Night Live" writer Greg Daniels, who went on to create the American adaptation of the British sitcom "The Office," has two new series premiering in May. Later this month, he and his NBC "Office" star Steve Carell reteam for a new Netflix comedy called "Space Force." And starting today, Amazon presents another new Greg Daniels comedy. It's called "Upload." And our TV critic David Bianculli has a review of that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

ANDY ALLO: (As Nora) Welcome to Upload, Nathan. You made it to Lakeview, you lucky duck.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: In the new Greg Daniels sci-fi comedy "Upload," Nathan Brown - played by Robbie Amell - is the lead character, but he's not so lucky. First of all, we hardly get to know Nathan and the world of the near-future in which he lives when he stops living. The handsome young man dies in a freak accident involving his self-driving car, and his wealthy girlfriend puts up the money to have his memories and personality uploaded into a look-alike avatar. And that avatar resides in what now passes for his eternal afterlife in a world not of his own making.

Actually, it's a world made by a giant corporation, one of several competing to offer people an alternative to dying in the natural way and dealing with whatever does or doesn't come next. One of the many brilliant concepts in this new "Upload" show is that series creator Greg Daniels envisions his imaginary world as a place where this transition from bio to Upload, as they call it, is a predominantly financial transaction. The more you can afford, the better your computerized afterlife. And Nathan, because his girlfriend's family literally owns the place, gets to live with the 1 percenters, whether he wants to or not.

Here he is waking up for the first time to his new reality, guided by a computer tech back in the real world, an Upload client support staffer named Nora, who serves as his personal Siri or Alexa. She's played by Andy Allo, and she's instantly likeable, as is her co-star.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UPLOAD")

ALLO: (As Nora) Do you see anything?

ROBBIE AMELL: (As Nathan Brown) I'm in some kind of old-fashioned room looking over a lake. Beautiful trees. Whoa, a shark's swimming right towards me.

ALLO: (As Nora) What? OK, that's not supposed to happen.

AMELL: (As Nathan) Kidding. Kidding.

ALLO: (As Nora, laughter) Sense of humor - nice. So welcome to Lakeview, the only digital afterlife environment modeled on the grand Victorian hotels of the United States and Canada. Hope it's not too Ralph Lauren for you.

AMELL: (As Nathan) I mean, it was never really my thing, but it's kind of cool.

ALLO: (As Nora) Yeah. Uplifting views, healthy pursuits, timeless Americana.

AMELL: (As Nathan) Are there slaves?

ALLO: (As Nora) What? Are you serious? One - this is just a design scheme. And two, that's not even the right period. Lakeview is open to all races, religions, genders - absolutely anybody.

BIANCULLI: In "Upload," we get to explore both worlds - the computer-generated Lakeview and the real world of 2033, which is when this series begins and Nathan dies. In both places, the details - comic and otherwise - are crammed into each frame like panels from a drawing in Mad magazine. The closer you look, the more you'll find.

In the real world, Nora has a vintage political poster on her wall supporting the 2024 political ticket of Oprah and Kamala. In the afterlife of the avatars, residents can adjust the seasons of the gorgeous view outside their window just by turning the dial on a sort of landscape thermostat, kind of like changing the background on your Zoom meeting. Breakfast buffets are loaded with endless treats, but like most of the things in these for-profit virtual realities, you have to pay extra to get what you want. In Nathan's case, his girlfriend Ingrid, played by Allegra Edwards, controls his budget and decides, as each purchase request comes to her account, whether or not to indulge him.

There even are ways for the virtual and real worlds to interact. Nora, as a client support technician, can visit his world as her own temporary avatar. And Ingrid and Nathan can see each other by visual computer links, watching and talking on monitors. That's an accidental extra-creepy touch because watching them reach out to each other, trying to connect only through TV screens suddenly, feels much too familiar.

But "Upload," this new TV comedy without a laugh track, does more than just create inventive new worlds. Like "The Good Place," it's full of thoughtful questions and challenging ideas, even about the meaning of life itself - and of death itself. "Upload" also holds up to comparisons with episodes of "Black Mirror," covering the worlds within worlds of avatars and computerized identity, and to similar themes in "Westworld" and the movie "Her." And very quickly, "Upload" reveals itself to have even more layers. It's a love story, with Nathan and Nora extremely attracted to one another but fighting seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

And before long, Nathan begins to suspect that the freak accident that killed him was no accident at all. That turns this sitcom into a mystery series, too, as Nathan and others set out to solve a murder - his. I love "Upload" because it's so smart, so funny and so imaginatively complicated. It may sound like a paradox, but watching a TV show right now about a character who feels confined and helpless and trapped in these troubled days when many of us share those same feelings turns out to be a wonderful way to escape.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University.

On Monday's show, we welcome back fashion mentor Tim Gunn. His new fashion competition show "Making The Cut" features eco-conscious designs that fit all body types and are gender neutral. We'll hear more about his life, how he came to love teaching despite a difficult start, his struggles as a teenager and his father, who worked closely with J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "C'EST SI BON")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "C'EST SI BON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.