Amazon has debuted a new futuristic comedy sci-fi series, "Upload," from TV series veteran Greg Daniels, who co-created both “The Office" and “Parks and Recreation.” The show has a handful of funny ideas but doesn't quite add up to anything substantial.
The premise of "Upload" is that in the not-very-distant future, humans are able to upload their consciousness into the afterlife of their choice. Nathan (Robbie Amell) is a software developer in his late 20s, in a relationship with a selfish, shallow woman (Allegra Edwards.)
After he dies in a self-driving car accident, Nathan arrives in a synthetic afterlife called Lakeview, which resembles an all-inclusive resort. He slowly adjusts to life there, even forming an obvious connection with the avatar of his tech support "angel," Nora (Andy Allo.) We also see Nora, in her off-the-clock life.
Meanwhile, there are soon hints of corporate malfeasance: Nathan begins to suspect that he may have been murdered, while for some reason his afterlife incarnation can never remember any details about his earthbound work life. And once we learn that there's such a thing as "downloading"-returning consciousness to earth following an upload that's a hint as to where things are going.
All ten episodes debuted Friday and can be streamed now for Amazon Prime subscribers; we've seen the first four. The first one is long, about 45 minutes, but the rest is around 30 minutes.
The obvious comparison is to "The Good Place," another series about young people in a creatively rendered afterlife, and that show was created by Daniels' old partner Michael Schur. The visual style and color palette are even similar. But the difference is, "The Good Place" mastered a combination of comedy and big philosophical questions while availing itself of a heavy-hitting cast. "Upload" doesn't go nearly that deep. And its attempts at satire about technology and late capitalism are very hit-or-miss.
Amell, seen most recently in the hit Netflix action movie "Code 8," is charismatic enough, although when it comes to natural comedy, he's not quite Ted Danson. He does have strong chemistry with Andy Allo, and the thread of their relationship is of more interest than most of the rest of what's happening on screen. Much less successful is the rendering of the girlfriend character who, in the episodes, I saw at least, is the sort of one-dimensional shrew that we don't see a lot of in movies or TV anymore.
One strength is the supporting cast. Kevin Bigley is very funny as another resident of the afterlife, while William B. Davis-Cigarette Smoking Man from "The X-Files"!-shows up as a wealthy industrialist who's supposed to be a parody of David Koch.
There are a lot of scattered decent ideas, such as a "therapy dog" that speaks with a human voice, the idea of a suit that allows the souls of the afterlife to have sex with the living, being able to attend one's own funeral, and that in future, Oscar Mayer and Intel have merged. Some of it, though, is well-trodden. There's a bunch of stuff in the second episode about people giving each other star ratings, which was already the focus of a “Black Mirror” episode; that series, in fact, seems to be a clear inspiration here. The recent “Devs,” as well, explores some similar themes, albeit with a much darker tone.
There's no word yet about whether "Upload" will receive a second season, but there's a chance the show could catch on, thanks to Amell's popularity and residual goodwill from the long run of "The Office." But if you finish streaming quickly, know that another Daniels-created show, "Space Force," is coming to Netflix at the end of the month.
While "Upload" has some virtues, most of what it does has been done better, previously, by other shows.
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist, and film critic, who is also a contributor to Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons.