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Dan Barrett is an industry commentator & TV critic. He does radio - 4BC & ABC GC and co-hosts the Screen Watching podcast. He's a former Mediaweek deputy editor and content creator for SBS.
Greg Daniels (creator of The Office and Parks & Recreation) tackles the biggest issues in life and death
Upload starts with a question: What would happen if Silicon Valley disrupted the afterlife?
The series supposes a world where technology companies can control a persons experience of the afterlife, enabling them to remain in contact with the regular world via telecommunications. While gentle with its comedy (that’s a nice way of saying that the show is humorous without being actually laugh out loud funny), the show is a savage criticism about the role of tech giants in our lives, relationships, and the result which is an ever-growing divide between rich and poor.
We currently live in a world where technology companies control the platforms we increasingly live our lives on, giving these private companies an active role in our entertainment, health, romance, sex lives, political consciousness, transport, etc etc etc.
Quite literally the only time that a modern person can leave the grasp of Facebook/Google/Twitter/Sheinhardt Wig Corporation/Apple/Amazon is with death.
In the world of Upload, even that has been taken from us.
Upload starts with the death of twentysomething Nathan (Robbie Amell). An attractive guy, he seems to be on the start of having a promising life when he’s involved in a self-driving car accident. His wealthy girlfriend pays to have his consciousness uploaded to the afterlife world paid for by her grandmothers estate.
For Nathan, this is also somewhat of a subtle horror story. His eternal existence now is completely at the whims of a family he is only tangentially connected to. He’s not living in his idea of heaven, but rather the ideal of heaven held by his girlfriends deceased grandmother. And his relationship with his girlfriend seems incredibly rocky - what if she decides to remove funding for his afterlife? Does he no longer continue to exist?
In this corporate afterlife, the deceased/customers are supported by dedicated on-call ‘Angels’ - glorified call centre staff who can be called upon to help them with anything from physical health issues (apparently just because a person has left their body behind it doesn’t mean they can’t also have ED problems), to mental wellbeing.
Nathan has been assigned Nora (Andy Allo) as his personal angel, a single twentysomething who is struggling to pay the bills, cannot establish a satisfying romantic/sex life, and is constantly feeling the pressure of a life that seems designed to keep her from any level of happiness. She’s also working to have enough money to pay for her father to be able to Upload his consciousness when he passes.
So much of this series feels like it is set five minutes from now. The foundations for the world of Upload have already been set. But our actions now are the building blocks towards this sort of future.
The question you might be asking is: What’s really so bad about a corporation giving us access to eternal life? I know I’d like to (after)live forever and I’d be happy filling out a consumer survey every day if it gave me access.
Creator Greg Daniels (The Office US, Parks & Recreation, King of The Hill) has smartly included a character into the show which addresses the problem of creating an afterlife in which people from the beyond can still communicate with those still alive.
William B Davis is a few years older now than when he was puffing Morley’s by the pack on The X-Files, but he’s included in this show as David Choak. The character is obviously an allusion to the recently departed David Koch. The world of Upload gives the David Koch’s of the world agency from the great beyond. Do we really want a world in which the rich and powerful elite (which includes brutal dictators, media magnates, and Jay Leno) are able to maintain power for an eternity?
It’s posing questions like this that speaks to the relevance and vitality of a series like Upload. This is a show that will have you thinking about the way that the world is currently constructed and how we live day to day is governed almost entirely by the knowledge that we won’t be on this planet forever. Sure, our current technological drive may see all of us living in the metaverse one day, but right now there are some absolutes and one of them is that we will all one day die. Once you strip that away from us and put the solution in the hands of powerful corporations, how does that change us as people?
The broad sci-fi conceit of Upload is what makes the show exciting, but will also be what puts people off watching it. Sci-fi comedy shows don’t have a great track record and the production style of this show doesn’t do much to elevate it. Greg Daniels has cited movies like Her and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind as inspirations for the show and it is a shame that he didn’t also borrow from their grittier aesthetic. Uploads biggest failing as a series is that it just looks too clean and polished, stripping it of a sheen of prestige.
Upload won’t be to everybody’s taste - too cerebral for some, while too slight for others. But it is a show that takes the time to consider the greatest existential questions humanity might ever have to grapple with. There aren’t many examples of shows doing that on TV.
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