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Is Upload Too Late to Be a Good Afterlife Comedy?

Photo: Amazon Studios

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I don’t know if I want to sit across the table from Greg Daniels’ Upload for another season. I’m confused about what its companionship means to me. Are we true friends? Soulmates? Occasional hook-ups that end up going to The Poconos at a moment’s notice? Or am I the problem? Am I simply just too hung-up on my ex-TV shows to appreciate what is in front of me?

First I must turn to the cultural zeitgeist of afterlife, half-hour, dark comedies over the past four years. Obvious comparisons include a consistently surprising and witty The Good Place, and Amazon’s enigmatic, taken-too-soon Forever. Go back a little further and we had more of a fixation for dead-but-still-on-earth, hour-long, comedy-dramas in HBO’s Six Feet Under, Showtime’s Dead Like Me, and (the also taken-too-soon) Pushing Daisies. So what does that say about our current timing and niche of programming (besides a decreased attention span)?

Well, perhaps the hardest thing for Upload in 2020 is carving out its own space and differentiating itself from its afterlife, half-hour, dark comedy predecessors. (I would start a conspiracy theory that Upload is the reason Amazon canceled Forever but alas they were greenlit at the same time—albeit Forever got a season order, and Upload got a pilot order—but I digress.) Upload, for better or (probably) worse, lives in the shadows of The Good Place and Forever. It’s a sometimes off-putting mixture that feels like it’s trying to combine The Good Place’s witty punchlines, the foreboding setting of Forever, the memory-erasing mystery of Amazon’s Homecoming, and the technological world-building of Black Mirror’s “San Junipero.” Had these shows not come before it, perhaps it wouldn’t have such a high number of concepts to juggle that now require a certain level of innovation. (Of course, I can’t blame this solely on the timing of when this was chosen to air, but this is all to say that I think this show suffers from a higher level of expectation from the viewer due to the footprints already in the sand of this specific genre.)

With all of that on its shoulders, I do question the choice of protagonist, or rather the arc of the protagonist. In the aforementioned afterlife, half-hour, dark comedies our protagonists end up being entitled assholes, but with arcs that keep us somehow rooting for them. Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop is a terrible pharma-salesperson on earth, but in The Good Place the terrible parts of her lead her to discover the terrible parts of The Good Place. This ultimately leads to her redemption arc as a person. There is a very deep part of her that wants to be better and ultimately through persistence, she does become better. In turn, she makes the frozen-yogurt filled “good place” around her an actually good place.

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) stands smiling with a clipboard in NBC's The Good Place.
Kristen Bell as Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place. Photo: NBC

In Maya Rudolph’s June Hoffman (if you think Fred Armisen’s Oscar is the protagonist of Forever, you’re wrong, goodbye) we are treated to a character’s layered desperation. She eventually grows tired of life’s—and then the afterlife’s—monotony. It’s a mesmerizing figurative burn (that also features June’s literal burn of their furniture). June is a character with a very deep part of her that wants to be independent, which eventually turns into a deeper need to feel like she matters in existence and uh…after-existence. So maybe what’s missing in Upload’s Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is a clear want. Sure, he wants justice for his (probable) murder, and he wants a shot at true love with Nora (Andy Allo), and he also wants to put back together his memories. AND like Forever’s June he wants independence, but I don’t know if these things do anything other than push the story forward.

June Hoffman (Maya Rudolph) sits on an airplane with a glass of champagne in Amazon's Forever.
Maya Rudolph as June Hoffman in Forever. Photo: Amazon Studios

Maybe what we’re missing here is a hero’s journey. By no means am I saying Nathan Brown is a hero! He is smug, entitled, vapid, vain, and even with his lost-puppy-dog eyes offers us little to root for. He’s also not really bad enough for an anti-hero arc, and the ending punch about him betraying his business partner doesn’t really land as painfully as it should, because Nathan hasn’t been built up to be bad, or really built up at all. Maybe Upload—like Nathan—suffers from a level of concern too focused on outer appearance (and cowlicks), and not enough concern for inner appearance (and conflicts).

This is all to say that visually everything is stunning: the special effects, the scanning in and out of the angels, and the laser-sharp transitions between VR-goggle tech-support Brooklyn, and picturesque Lakeview, are spotless. The memory parlor, lavish dining room, and plush hotel rooms of Lakeview juxtaposed with the problems of the “real world” (pesky fat cartridges, Kmart sponsored afterlives, and alma-maters like Pence University) make for an enjoyable scenic ride for the viewer.

However, I do wish this self-driving car would take the less scenic route sometimes, and engage with some of the larger problems it has setup (see: Nora’s father dying from vape lung, whose death-status seems to fluctuate based off of the episode’s needs; Nathan’s mysterious father who is not dead, but rather just a deadbeat who left him at age six; and our somehow cliffhanger ending instigated by Nathan’s is-she-bad-or-is-she-good girlfriend Ingrid, played by an underutilized Allegra Edwards).

Ingrid and Nathan (Allegra Edwards and Robbie Amell) hold hands.
Ingrid & Nathan (Allegra Edwards & Robbie Amell) in Upload. Photo: Amazon Studios

Let’s briefly engage with the ending in which Ingrid uploads to spend digital eternity with Nathan. Does it present new problems for the next season? Yes, of course, but it also derails a lot of current problems that should’ve been engaged with more before we closed the season out (See mainly: Nathan’s probable murder and how things really unfolded with his company.) I don’t really care about this love triangle that has been set up, and it’s frustrating to watch both Nora and Ingrid’s plotlines be reduced down to their affection for Nathan as their guiding force by the end of these ten episodes.

So I end this season of Upload frustrated. Would I have felt this way had this aired in 2016? Probably not. But that’s the thing, I have higher expectations of the half-hour, afterlife, dark comedy form now. Maybe I’ve been tainted to think that the subject matter has to be dealt with a certain way because of the content that has come before, but is it too much to ask for a little care in the conclusion? A little resolve like at the end of Forever? Or…to blow things wide open and shed light on something bigger? (Like The Good Place did at the end of Season 1.) I know this show is far from its thesis, but I’m not reaching for the stars here.

After all is said and done, don’t get me wrong, Upload is not bad. It’s just not of the same caliber I have come to expect in recent years. Like a mediocre third-course after two delicious ones, it goes down better with an accompanying alcoholic beverage, and though I wish it took itself more seriously, maybe it’s best to look at it like a summer fling. And those go down best when you accept them for their shallowness and don’t harp on any of their flaws.

Derrick Gravener

Written by Derrick Gravener

Derrick Gravener is a graduate of the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program and his work has been featured in PRISM International, The Garden Statuary, and The Real Vancouver Writers' Series. In his spare time, he makes ice cream and rewatches Weeds.

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