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Upload review – Amazon's afterlife comedy is the less good place | Television & radio


TV has reached its maximum capacity of quirky afterlifes. The Good Place set this recent wave in motion on NBC with its vision of Hell as a metaphysical bureaucracy plastering a cheery expression over its endless labyrinth of paperwork and intra-departmental conflicts. TBS’s Miracle Workers cranked the whimsy up a notch for the romcom angle, as two low-level angels invisibly nudged a pair of shy mortals together. Amazon’s Forever went the existential route, confronting a married couple stuck in a rut with the horror of continuing all their daily drudgeries after death in a suburb identical to their own. In each case, the series generated comedy by offering a banal solution to the grand mystery of what happens after we shuffle off this mortal coil. Who knew heaven would be so devastatingly similar to a place on earth.

Upload, Amazon’s new extension of this trending posthumousness, puts a slant on the material by envisioning the great beyond as a real and existent thing. In the latest series from TV veteran Greg Daniels (longtime Simpsons staffer, co-creator of King of the Hill, the US Office, Parks and Recreation, the list goes on), tech wizards have devised a network of virtual resorts into which a dying person’s consciousness can be imported at the moment of their passing. Paradise, as such, waits not for the pure of heart but for the plump of wallet. Those leaving behind sizable estates or families willing to pay can retire to the tony campus of Lakeview, where residents enjoy plush hotel rooms and lavish buffets three times a day. Those unable to spring for the entry fee and the unlimited data required to maintain the lifestyle – er, deathstyle – may opt in to a 2GB plan, which amounts to a stay in prison. Why anyone would find that preferable to dying the old-fashioned way remains unclear, but all the same, it’s the final culmination of a cruel capitalist ethic: even the alleged great equalizer favors the rich.

For all its overtures against the overclass, the writing largely defaults to the soft surrealism of The Good Place, and likewise attempts to pass off its non-sequitur oddness as humor. Computer glitches do the work of discombobulation here, at one point going on the fritz and turning everyone into a blocky Minecraft version of themselves. Daniels even comes up with his own inflection on The Good Place’s omnipotent AI program Janet, an all-purpose redheaded klutz with less personality and depth than his clear inspiration. His absurdity hits the mark most frequently when targeting the indignities of the service industry, a business already founded on arbitrary rules and catch-22s. Lakeview is anything but all-inclusive, running up in-app purchases for snacks despite appetite itself becoming more of a formality. In the sharpest pinprick of all, the virtual breakfast spread vanishes at 10:01 every morning. You can put a stopper in the cycle of life itself, but you cannot have scrambled eggs in the afternoon.

The intricately realized setting needs a story, however, at which point this fertile if familiar premise begins to suffer. Our man is Nathan (Robbie Amell, simply not cut out for the demands of leading a comedy series), having gained admission to Lakeview on the largesse of his spoiled heiress girlfriend (Allegra Edwards). He’s something of an inconsiderate boob upon his arrival, passive and content in his relationship on the grounds of sex and overall hotness. As in The Good Place, his moral reformation will be the primary project of the series, as he’s bettered over the course of the season by his account service rep (Andy Allo). Referred to as an “Angel”, she oversteps her professional boundaries by developing a close emotional bond to Nathan, which of course displaces his girlfriend as love rears its comely head. And in yet another instance of keeping with The Good Place’s example, the dramatic heft of whether two people will act on their mutual crush pales in comparison with its interrogations of the fabric of being.

To further gum up the works, a murder mystery has been thrown in as well. The grim joke of Nathan dying in an automated car crash he can clearly see coming eventually takes on the stink of foul play, leaving Nathan’s family and Angel to investigate. It’s another way to fill time in a series that would do best to adopt the loose vibe of Daniels’ most successful sitcoms, all of which evinced an understanding that the term means “situational comedy”. He’s going for something more involved here, oriented around romance and suspense over minute-by-minute laughs. They both join awkwardly with Daniels’ satirical ambitions, which would also be better served by the classic half-hour ensemble format. He’s got some substantive ideas about inequality, technology and how one feeds the other; they only need time to be developed. The 10 episodes, some longer than 30 minutes and some shorter, hustle us through a linear plot pieced together from used-up components. But this is supposed to be heaven – wouldn’t you rather just hang out?

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