Inverse Reviews

Amazon's Upload is where The Good Place and Snowpiercer collide

At times slapstick and others heartbreaking, Upload is all extremes and no consistency.

During its acclaimed run on NBC, The Good Place was an oasis of humor in a dark, unfunny world. As a comedy about four dead people, the series championed decency and kindness as it mused on ethics and philosophy. With its finale not far behind us, The Good Place practically passes the baton to Amazon's Upload, an equally funny and insightful social (and anti-capitalist?) satire with a far bleaker idea about the nature of a soul.

Because comparisons are inevitable: Where The Good Place imagines the afterlife like a beautiful garden, Upload imagines a synthetic biodome that's one glitch away from falling apart.

Streaming on Amazon Prime May 1, Upload is the newest show from Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation). Starring Robbie Amell and Andy Allo, the series is a genre hybrid of science fiction, workplace comedy, meet-cute rom-com, and murder mystery all packed into ten half-hour episodes. (The pilot is longer at 45 minutes.) Upload blends romance, slapstick, and intrigue to fulfill your appetite for a weekend binge. Balancing all those genres has its drawbacks, though, and the show's uneven tone can feel like an identity crisis at times.

Set in 2033, mankind has figured out how to prolong life by "uploading." With death not as final as it used to be, uploading is akin to predatory businesses like timeshares and retirement homes. There's lots of money to be made and lots of options to choose from. If you can afford it, you can be as comfortable for as long as your money lasts.

Upload centers on two people: Nathan Brown (Amell), an up-and-coming coder who dies in an automated car accident, and Nora (Allo), an employee at an Amazon-meets-Oculus company called "Horizen" that operates Lakeview, an afterlife resort resembling a mountainous hotel. Nora is Nathan's "Angel," a tech support/counselor who lives and works at her desk in real-world Brooklyn. As Nora and Nathan get close and feelings get complicated, the mysterious, possibly intentional circumstances of Nathan's death slowly come to light.

Robbie Amell and Andy Allo star in 'Upload', a new sci-fi romantic comedy (and murder mystery) streaming on Prime Video.Aaron Epstein/Amazon

A modern office sitcom — Upload bears surface similarities to Daniels' two other big sitcoms. Like Dunder Mifflin or Pawnee, Horizen is populated by mostly unlikable and incompetent misfits. Also like Office and Parks, it's packed full of sharp and insightful spoofs on the modern workplace. Gags run the gamut, from the obvious and broad (bad bosses and mandatory office parties) to the more specific and clever. (An office meeting is held "inside" Lakeview while employees huddle on the stairs with VR goggles on.) Smart editing and setups pay off with even the smallest of jokes in Upload, an impressive feat considering the absence of any established comedy talent in the series.

But it's beneath the silicon surface where Upload is its own beast. For starters, its after-death utopia is anything but. It's a new internet complete with ads, glitches, and gaping holes that can be exploited and hacked. Lakeview looks like the perfect place for a permanent vacation until you run into humanoid "ads" hawking Orbit gum and Taco Bell or find coffee and tea behind a $1.99 paywall. When there's a power outage at Horizen, avatars become Minecraft-like monstrosities. The Good Place also evoked technology in how its fantasy world operated, but Upload actually ties its afterlife to commercial tech. The humor of its mismanagement authentically stings.

'Upload' Aaron Epstein/Amazon

With its imagined world so tied to the economics of big tech, it doesn't take long for Upload to stand out from other supernatural and workplace comedies. Upload is a damning illustration of capitalism invading something even as natural as death.

The show proposes uploading as a new health care industry. It's the human rights issue of the 2030s, with people advocating subsidizing and private enterprises nickel-and-diming customers out the wazoo. The most revealing bit is when the show introduces the "Two Gigs," those who can only afford two gigabytes of data and live deep beneath the resort in a fluorescent dungeon. Remember the back of the train in Snowpiercer? That's the bottom floor of Lakeview.

As an Amazon show, Upload is suspicious of big tech. It has no qualms thumbing its nose at the invasive nature and questionable ethics of companies like the one funding its production. (It should be said the only actual mention of Amazon in the show is in a cluster of Prime boxes tucked to the side in the Horizen office.)

This anti-tech stance gives depth to even Upload's most shallow characters. Nathan, his supermodel ex-girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), and others change and grow through the show's ongoing romance, murder mystery plot, and big-tech backdrop.

In 'Upload', death is not as final as it used to be, and it's easy to communicate between the worlds of the living and the digital "dead."Aaron Epstein/Amazon

But the show is a winner thanks to Nora and Nathan. Amell and Allo's chemistry is the savior of Upload, offering a believable story of how two strangers can and do fall in love in a long-distance romance unlike any other. It's because of this romance that the stakes are always high in Upload. It's also why it's so easy to click "next episode."

If there is one glitch in Upload's system, it's that it overclocks its processors. The show never quite settles into any one thing. One moment it's an anti-capitalist satire; the next it's a goofball romance. There's always a gag to be made, always a new plot twist to sidetrack the show from its original destination.

Witty and smart, Upload is a worthwhile binge as yet another month of quarantine looms. It won't heal your troubled soul like The Good Place did, but it goes to places afterlife comedy never dared. And its preoccupation with plots (plural intended) gives Upload the forward momentum that so few streaming shows ever take advantage of. Welcome to Lakeview.

Upload will begin streaming on Prime Video May 1.

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