Amazon's 'Upload' Is a Cheeky Sci-Fi Murder Mystery Set in a Digital Afterlife
'The Office' and 'Parks and Rec' creator Greg Daniels has worked on the idea for 'Upload' across 30 years of his career.
The thing about Amazon's new sci-fi series Upload is its futuristic familiarity. The comedy hails from Greg Daniels (creator of Parks and Rec and The Office) and posits a not-so-distant future where a technological breakthrough has made a variety of digital afterlife scenarios available to extend one's life for centuries -- if you can afford it.
The 10-episode first season, which premieres to Amazon on Friday, tells the story of a young tech entrepreneur named Nathan (Robbie Amell), who, after a surprise death, struggles to traverse his new afterlife as he's stuck living in an upscale resort-style heaven called Lakeview, provided by Horizen (ahem). It doesn't sound that bad until you consider the fact that Nathan is unable to make his own decisions without the approval of his still-living girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) since she's the one who purchased Nathan's afterlife to begin with.
It seems that, in order for Nathan to grow as a person, he had to die. And this oddball journey leads him to search for answers -- it seems his self-driving car accident may have been no accident at all -- while he forms an unexpected love connection with Nora (Andy Allo), his customer support "angel." As you might expect, this presents a whole slew of problems, the biggest being the fact that Nathan is dead and stuck in a digital utopia, while Nora is still very much alive and dealing with the humdrum day-to-day struggles of real life.
In an era where science fiction entertainment has toyed with issues like technological immortality, morality, and that ever-present buzzword free will (we're looking at you Westworld, Devs, The Good Place, and Altered Carbon), Upload's a breath of fresh air. It's as if Daniels put the best rom-com, sci-fi, social satire, and murder mystery elements into a blender knowing full well that the end result would be the thought-provoking and humorous series we have before us.
But if you're thinking the new sci-fi series looks a heck of a lot like Black Mirror -- the San Junipero episode specifically explores what a technological afterlife would look like -- Greg Daniels explained to Thrillist during the show's virtual press junket that he's been carrying the idea for Upload around in his head for roughly 30 years.
"It started when I was a writer on Saturday Night Live," Daniels said. "I was walking around New York trying to think of sketch ideas. And I was looking at some advertising in an electronics store in Midtown about CD players. I was just sort of thinking about digitizing things versus analog, and what would be the ultimate thing you could digitize? What if you could digitize your own mind?" Needless to say, this concept was ill-fitting for a Jon Lovitz sketch, so Daniels kept the idea in his back pocket and revisited it when he could.
"I just sort of had it in my notebook and at various times when I had some time, I tried to write it in prose," Daniels continued. "For instance, when I was pulling away from King of the Hill, I wrote the introductory scene of Nora uploading Nathan and sort of introducing him to the world. Then we had a writers strike in 2008 and I took it out again and I started trying to make it into, like, a Harry Potter-sized novel. But then we went back to work."
It wasn't until The Office had ended at NBC that Daniels says he began looking for his next project. As luck would have it, all these years of mulling this quirky idea around in his head would finally pay off. "The technology seemed to catch up to the show in a way where you didn't have to describe to everybody what it meant to be 'uploaded,'" Daniels continued. "The notion that you could live digitally seemed more widespread. I was able to conceive of it more as a comedy about what it's like to be trapped in an app and be at the mercy of all the big tech companies."
When talking about the notion of transferring a person's consciousness into a digital platform, it's difficult not to put things into video game terms -- as if Nathan's really living out his best heavenly life in a weird game of Animal Crossing -- but each episode of the show lays out the series rules quite easily. This is the year 2033, where corporations have all the power and where people can create their food on 3D printers. In this near-future society, people earn their worth through a ratings system similar to another Black Mirror episode, "Nosedive." The stakes, here, aren't nearly as bleak.
"It's not a dystopia and it's not a utopia; it's a kind of Middle-topia," Daniels explains. "My attitude towards technology is it's always kind of released with great fanfare and you see all the positives when it's first described to people. But as a little bit of a cynical comedy person, I'm always waiting for the unintended consequence or the glitches, or the bad side to exhibit itself, finally."
As you get further along into Upload, you eventually learn, as it's teased in the first few minutes, that Lakeview isn't the only afterlife available to those looking to invest in their digital heaven. Some "travel options" have more luster and appeal than others, which opens up a whole other component to the reality, as it exists in the show. The various vacation experiences you'll get to immerse yourself in with these utopian-feeling computerized life-extensions aren't available to everyone. It all depends on what you can afford. Even in death, capitalism and classism are alive and well.
"The upload is the weirdest technology," Daniels says. "This just gave me a chance to try and imagine what life will be like in both the pluses and the minuses. And there's a lot of pluses, right? It's super cool that you can extend your life in a digital environment that's got this vacation porn aspect, and it's very beautiful. But people have stopped investing in the real world because they're all saving up to be uploaded. It's still being done for profit, and not everybody can afford it. So it's meant to be complicated."
"Complex" is probably a better word to explain the series, as the rules that are laid out within the Upload world aren't that complicated to understand. And that's one of the many appealing factors that come with Amazon's new series. There may be a murder mystery unfolding in this first season, but it's the touching connection of star-crossed lovers Nora and Nathan -- amid the very relatable backdrop of a disconnected society -- that acts as the emotional foundation for the story grow.
We referenced a handful of shows earlier that dig into popular, heady sci-fi concepts, but there's something light and inviting about Upload that sets it apart from the bleaker genre fare audiences have grown accustomed to. Here, Daniels gives us a somewhat uplifting exploration of what immortality could feasibly look like mere decades from now. He's left the intellectual mumbo jumbo at the door, instead, feeding our collective souls with a simple enough story that teeters on some bigger questions of life, love, humanity, purpose, and religion.
Upload opens up so many doors to questions about immortality and choice, which led to an obvious question: if upload technology existed, what afterlife would Greg Daniels go with?
"I'm very happy with the one that I picked, for sure," he admits. "I love the environment of that mountain hotel vibe thing. I think it's very beautiful. And you know, in the back of my head, I'm hoping that Amazon will get the idea to actually do this [technology] just in time for me to use it when I'm really old. And maybe they'll give it to me for free because I gave them the idea. That's my end game."
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