What if the next life were no better than this one? Not a heaven or a hell, or even a purgatorial waiting room, but a world that operates according to the same rules as the one that came before it, only tweaked enough that we don’t just accept them as the way things have to be. In the near future of Upload, whose first season begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Friday, death is not the end, at least for those with the resources to survive it. But the hereafter in Greg Daniels’ series isn’t spiritual, it’s digital, and everything, including entry and your continued existence, comes at a cost. It’s less like heaven than a cruise ship on an infinite voyage, one where everything is marked up because the dead aren’t in much of a position to comparison-shop.
Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) finds his way to Lakeview, as his particularly plush digital forever is called, after his self-driving car rear-ends a garbage truck. He’s only 27, an aspiring software designer on the verge of his first big sale, but his girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) is so panicked by the thought of a life without him that she coaxes him to sign away his future as his gurney is being wheeled through a hospital. The ads for Lakeview make it seem like a country-club paradise, but the first hint that it might not be quite so simple comes via the upload process itself, which instantly vaporizes the still-living Nathan’s head, a calm female voice chirping “Upload complete” as what’s left of his lifeless corpse flops into a tray of ice.
In a sense, Nathan’s entry into Lakeview is a dream come true. While we still don’t know much about him after the 10 episodes of Upload’s first season are over, he comes across as a person who wasn’t born into privilege but always felt he was destined for it. The ex-girlfriends who show up at his funeral—live-streamed into Lakeview from the world of the living—are all model-pretty and rail-thin, as is Ingrid, who’s the daughter of a fabulously wealthy industrialist, to boot. Entering Lakeview puts him among some of the wealthiest people on Earth, including Koch-brother stand-in David Choke (William B. Davis, the actor best known for playing The X-Files’ Cigarette Smoking Man), who savors the taste of a virtual black rhino steak while bragging that scientists had to kill the last living specimen to get the taste right. Nathan is finally among the richest of the rich, but life in Lakeview isn’t one size-fits-all. The digital afterlife is laden with micropayments, whether it’s a thousand dollars for the swing of a virtual golf club or a dollar a minute to catch a cold, which apparently becomes desirable after a few decades of sustained algorithmic perfection.
It’s details like these that make Upload worth watching, and not its familiar, unengrossing plot and characters. It’s a running gag early on that the primary descriptor people use to describe Nathan is “hot,” and while that’s not inaccurate, it also speaks to how little else the character has to distinguish him. There’s more to Nora (Andy Allo), the tech-support worker who serves as Nathan’s in-afterlife “angel”—basically a call-center staffer who visits paradise during office hours and then goes back to her studio apartment. But the arc of the season requires viewers to become invested in the budding romance between Nathan and his on-the-clock caretaker, and it’s difficult to work up any enthusiasm for fanning the sparks.
Where the show excels is in playing out its premise at length, and in depth. The digital afterlife is like a sitcom Minority Report, where artificial intelligences done up as hotel bellhops dog your steps offering you free gum and promotional chalupas rain from the sky. It’s heaven, but with spam. There’s no net neutrality in the next world, either, so unless you’re like Ingrid’s family, who brag of having “three generations of unlimited data,” you can get stuck in suspended animation when you go over your limit. The darkest and most resonant outgrowth of this idea comes when Nathan starts exploring the lower floors of the 10,000-story hotel that houses Lakeview’s residents, and enters the world of the “2 gigs”—budget customers whose monthly allocation is so small that they can burn through their data with a string of vigorous thoughts. If they want so much as a nice view from their window, which otherwise looks out on a featureless grey expanse, they have to sacrifice several precious megabytes. (Should the parallel to the real world not already be clear, the show sends Nora on a cross-country trip in “economy minus,” where passengers hang from the plane’s ceiling and the seats both in front of and behind Nora recline in her direction.) The best strategy, a 2 gig advises Nathan, is to sit still, try not to think, and hope someone on the other side comes through with the money to spring you from this eternal debtors’ prison.
There’s no way to avoid comparing Upload to The Good Place, which was created by Daniels’ Office and Parks and Recreation collaborator Michael Schur. But Daniels’ show is more interested in the material than the philosophical, in the world as it is rather than what it should be. There’s a glimpse, perhaps to be expanded upon in future seasons, of what an entirely digital world could be, a place in which physical limitations are no longer a barrier to true equality. But like the internet itself, the digital afterlife’s promise has been buried under a mound of micropayments, utopia eroded a dollar at a time.