Is the afterlife digital? Thoughts on Upload

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

As The Good Place proved, death can be funny.

Well, not so much death itself which is distinctly unfunny and horrifically grief-inducing but what comes afterwards, with the afterlife ripe, as it turns out, for some very clever riffs on heaven and hell and whether there might be some more earthbound alternatives to what happens after our last and final breath.

Upload, created by Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation) steps determinedly into the space but if you’re expecting some sort of The Good Place, think again.

Daniels’ latest creation eschews any idea of a spiritual afterlife – not entirely but we’ll get that to that later – in favour of one comprised of 0s and 1s with those who can afford it, and even those who can’t (though their numbers are far more limited, as are the services offered to them), uploaded to an afterlife where they can live out their post-death life in a far more earthl construct.

Ostensibly a comedy, 2033-set Upload isn’t afraid to delve into the expansive and longlasting effects of death and dying and how, even in a world where it is possible to call your deceased loved ones on your mobile phone, that you can find yourself as mired in grief as ever.

This applies even before death itself occurs, with debates within families about whether it is best, if you can afford it, of course, to choose the known digital option or to take your chances with traditional belief systems.

For people like Dave Antony (Chris Williams) there is no question that heaven, the ones with pearly gates, angels singing and God sitting in brooding splendour is the only way to go; he believes his dead wife is there and all that sustains him as he grapples with a terminal health condition is that he will see her one day.

What makes his position interesting, and stamps Upload as one of the more clever and thoughtful comedies out there at the moment, is that his kind and caring daughter Nora (Andy Allo), who is still lost in the grief of her mother’s passing, works for the biggest and shiniest digital afterlife provider, Horizons.

She is what is euphemistically referred to as an “Angel”, a person tasked with providing all kinds of support to those who download into Lake View, an upmarket (well, mostly) post-death home for people used to the finer things in life, who want to spend their post-corporeal condition boating and golfing and eating the very best food available.

As someone exposed to the new thinking on the afterlife every single day, she wants her father to go into Lake View (thanks to her employee discount, she can just about afford it) so she can continue to speak with and relate to him largely as she does now.

You can understand why this matters to her; she’s lost her mum and doesn’t want to lose her dad too, and if there’s a way for her to be sure he doesn’t go into some kind of post-death void, then she’ll opt for it.

The motivation for her family to call Lake View their forever while-they-can-afford-it home – if you can’t keep up with the costs of sumptuous Lake View life, you get busted down to 2G status where avatars are black and white and options are extremely limited, part of Upload‘s pithy social commentary which infuses the whole show – becomes even more pronounced when a new arrival causes to re-think quite a lot of things.

Nathan Brown, a 27-year-old wannabe tech mogul, who with his business partner Jamie (Jordan Johnson-Hinds) aims to democratise the whole after life digital business (worth hundreds of billions a year), dies in a mysterious self-driving car accident and thanks to some finagling by far more upmarket, control freak girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), finds himself in the salubrious surrounds of Lake View.

The actual process of getting there is pretty confronting, and is actually milked for laughs, something that night seem in poor taste but which, thanks to Daniels’ deft ability to blend the hilarious and the poignant to seamless effect, actually works brilliantly.

We are party to the grief of everyone losing Nathan, who, like you might expect, finds waking up to a digital afterlife he had neither requested or planned for to be massively distressing – some people find it so hard to process that they effectively suicide their digital selves by leaping into the torrant that connects Lake View to its servers – but we also come to understand that utopian though it might sound, that living forever in a computer-generated scenario can play with your mind and emotions on a massive scale.

For one thing, you can attend your own funeral.

While this is very funny in Nathan’s case, thanks to Ingrid’s vapid possession with Insta-worthy moments over actual, mournful sentiment, Upload isn’t solely concerned with playing the whole thing for laughs.

It acknowledges, not just through Nathan but other key characters such as eternally 14-year-old Dylan (Rhys Slack) who wants to grow up but can’t (his mother is disinclined to let her little boy ever change, that the transition from life to death to afterlife is as tough as it ever was.

It doesn’t matter than you can hold weekly or daily videoconferences with family and friends, or that you can attend your own funeral, the fact remains that a great, emotionally-taxing transition has occurred, and this doesn’t go away simply because your consciousness exists in another form.

Upload, for all of its predilection for being sharply, humourously and sometimes slapstick-happy observant, recognises this and given the emotional weight of this truth to be given full expression in amongst the sight gags and witty oneliners.

Helping its balance of the silly and the serious, is the fact, as noted, that it is willing to engage in some healthy and well-articulated social commentary and that it is happy to allow other real emotions to creep on in.

Take the romance that develops between Nathan and Nora, who isn’t supposed to even tell her charge her name, let alone fall in love with him.

But fall in love they do – not a spoiler, it is obvious from the trailer that this is very much on the cards – providing Upload with such immensely touching moment as Nathan transforms from wannbe tech douchebag to a man who wants to change the world for the better.

Assuming, of course, he can remember what happened to him before he died.

Another significant part of Upload‘s pleasingly-layered storytelling is the mystery over exactly what led to Nathan’s untimely death.

Without giving too much away, the Agatha Christie-esque sleuthing carried out by Nathan’s overly-intense, amateur private eye cousin Fran (Elizabeth Bowen in magnificent form), and later by Nora, lends a whole other substance to a show that is already far more weighty than most other comedies.

As the mystery deepens and grows, and we come to understand that Nathan’s life before Lake View was a whole lot more complicated, messy and dangerous than he remembers, all of which could imperil his new afterlife, we are led down some impressively meaningful existential routes which ask some rather weight questions under the guise of a whole of kidding around.

In that respect, it is very much a narrative sibling to The Good Place, with both shows balancing the ruminative and the hilarious so profoundly well that you usually spend an episode moving between happy, sad and intensely reflective.

Upload is very much its own vibrantly engaging creation, however, a show that winningly combines existential comedy, murder mystery, incisively affecting social commentary and ruminations on the afterlife in all its possible forms and which deserves the second season it has just been awarded, if only so we can find out if the answer to life, the universe and everything is 42 … or is it, in the brave new world digital world of the near-future, simply as many 0s and 1s as you can afford?

Posted In TV

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