It’s a weird feeling, watching the entire premise of a TV show become obsolete in real time.
This sounds like a dig on Greg Daniels’ new satiric sci-fi/rom-com streaming series, Upload—which you’ve probably seen a thousand digital ads for since Amazon Prime Video dropped it early last Thursday night (just in time to make Daniels’ one-off Parks and Rec charity reunion special a synergistic lead-in)—but I don’t mean it that way. In a vacuum, what Daniels is doing with Upload, using the genre trappings of science fiction, romantic comedy and satire to ask big, existential questions and throw some of modern society’s most dangerous trends into sharp relief, would be compelling. Silicon Valley conquering death by way of a digital afterlife technology that only the wealthiest (and, mostly, whitest) sliver of humanity could dream of affording? Yeah, I mean, duh—relevant.
The problem, of course, is that now more than almost any other time in recent cultural memory, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And while Upload hits many of the same notes that worked for spiritually similar series like Weird City (a 2019 satiric sci-fi anthology) and Forever (a 2018 comedic exploration on the mundanity of an afterlife you can’t control)—not to mention books like Gish Jen’s The Resisters (a class-based near-future dystopia which only came out in February, even though that already feels like a lifetime ago)—the historical context into which Upload has landed renders many of its central themes obsolete at best, and anxiety-inducing at worst. Either way, it’s disorienting enough that, as my patient saint of an editor could attest, I’ve found it nearly impossible to figure out how, exactly, to talk about it at all.
But despite the fact that articulating my thoughts has been a struggle, and despite the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s just one silly comedy in a sea of silly comedies in an ocean of ever-expanding content … I still think it’s important to pin those thoughts down—both because the global crisis that’s reframed Upload in such an extreme way will continue to affect how we watch television made in the Before Time (at least, that is, until production teams can get back to work and start incorporating our new reality into the stories they’re telling), and because the pandemic has laid harrowingly bare just how critical several of the things Upload is trying to say are.
To wit: Aside from the kinds of existential questions about life/death/the limitations of human consciousness that The Good Place had already primed us to understand as reasonable fodder for comedic storytelling, the thing Upload takes as its most central subject is the craven unjustness inherent to American neoliberalism. As Daniels has imagined it, this manifests in the extremes to which digital immortality perpetuates the kind of devastating economic inequality we in the audience were already plenty familiar with, even before the pandemic shut the economy down.
On their face, the questions that arise from this thematic arc don’t seem that obsolete: What does it mean that Lakeview, the most desirable digital afterlife around, is coded to resemble a fancy New England resort complete with golf links, an expensive in-app purchase mini-bar in each room, and a burgundy-clad A.I. bellhop that splits itself into peppy clones whenever guests have multiple requests? What does it mean that the majority of the Uploads in Lakeview (i.e. society’s deceased one-percent) are some combination of old, white, and/or male, while most of the underpaid, living customer service “angels” catering to them are people of color, women, and/or immigrants? What does it mean that Nora (Andy Allo), our living protagonist and worker bee at Lakeview’s parent company, Horizen, has to grovel for 5-star ratings from her Upload clients just for the possibility of getting an employee discount for her dad, who’s dying of vape-lung? What, furthermore, does it mean that our “dead” protagonist Nathan (Robbie Amell) was uploaded to Lakeview against his wishes and on his rich girlfriend’s capricious dime after a freak self-driving car accident?
You don’t need me to answer those questions for you; even if it wasn’t self-evident what all those things mean, the series itself does a good job of positioning Allo’s true-believer Nora both as an effective audience surrogate—able to channel, as a replaceable, low-income worker in a behemoth capitalist system, both the cynicism a lot of people might feel towards such an exclusionary post-life set-up, and the wide-eyed optimism/enthusiasm towards the potential of digital afterlife technology as a whole—and as a bright light of goodness shining in the cravenly capitalistic darkness.
What Daniels and his team couldn’t possibly have made evident within the text of the show, though, is, how surreal it would be to watch those important questions be asked in good faith, while at the same time the novel coronavirus pandemic has completely reoriented our understanding of who, exactly, essential workers are—which, in the world of Upload, Nora and her colleagues definitely would be—and of how much better, exactly, the majority of the population thinks workers in general deserve to be treated. (A joke Nora’s boss makes about imaginary holiday bonuses? Post-corona, ooh, well, you know.) What’s more, while Daniels and his team might have been able to take into consideration the fact that potential viewers’ access to Upload would come entirely by way of a spendy shipping subscription to a global commerce giant owned by the world’s richest Have—and staffed at the warehouse/customer service level by some of America’s most chronically (one could easily say criminally) overworked and underpaid Have Nots—they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to prepare for the fact that its first full day in the world would be International Workers’ Day. And they definitely wouldn’t have been able to prepare for the fact that on this particular IWD, many Amazon workers would be on a general strike, making any May 1st Prime Video streaming a crossing of a digital picket line.
This is a particular brand of disorientation. That is, the cognitive dissonance of passively submitting to a brightly colored comedy with a sweet romance at its center, a mysterious murder plot bubbling under the surface, and a big, cliffhanger finale, all while recognizing that it’s both a product of the systems and technologies it’s excoriating, and, in light of the pandemic, it’s in satiric conversation with a future that no longer feels inevitable. More than almost anything else, it’s the thing I haven’t been able to escape since I first started making my slow way through the episodes of Upload that were sent to critics early for review. Not “wow, what a clever indictment of a grotesquely familiar strain of neoliberalism that glorifies tech disruptors and casts poverty as a personal failing.” Not “hm, what a good opportunity to interrogate my own beliefs about what a soul is, and what a full life would look like if I decided digital consciousness counts.” Not even just “hey, how great is it that Robbie Amell has finally been given a series that lets him flex the funny-hunk muscles he so deftly displayed in The Duff?”
Those would all have been fine reactions to Daniels’ big, sci-fi vision. Upload mostly succeeds in layering those big themes together with comedic flare (there are some puberty jokes whose broadness/meanness just didn’t land for me, plus a thread about the intrusion of privacy re: Uploads’ memories that is criminally under-interrogated). And while all the actors involved do excellent work bringing their characters to specific, idiosyncratic life (Zainab Johnson’s Aleesha is a particular go-big-or-go-home standout), the fact that there is such a stark divide between the world the show was made in/for, and the world it ultimately premiered in, just ended up feeling too impossible to cross.
That said, as big a release as this first season was, with as big a plot twist/cliffhanger as it ends on, it seems just as impossible that Daniels and his team won’t have to figure out how to cross that divide eventually, if they want to have any hope at all of making a second, post-pandemic season make sense.
When(/if) that day comes, I’ll be excited to see what they come up with. Much like the world’s actual future, it literally couldn’t be anything any of us expect.
The first season of Upload is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.