This is a review of Upload, a brand new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime Video. Upload investigates a near-future reality where technology has made it possible for people to sidestep death by uploading their consciousness into a virtual world — if they have the money. This show is billed as a sci-fi comedy, which isn’t right at all. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a comedy. This show is a sci-fi romance mystery thriller, in that order. Don’t get me wrong, it is funny, mostly because of its characters and the chemistry between them, but I would heavily struggle to call it a comedy. So, my review of Upload is going to treat it as what it really is, which is more a sci-fi romance mystery with comedic elements.
The sci-fi aspects of the show are done extremely well. It showcases a Minority Report/Upgrade-era future, but one that seems a lot more down-to-Earth and a lot less fantastical. Self-driving cars are prominent. Virtual reality is ubiquitous, including haptic body suits. Cell phone screens are holographic popups produced by wearable technology. Grocery stores are automated. 3d printed food. These are all exciting new technologies that will almost assuredly become mainstream in the near future. Perhaps not 2033, but within our lifetimes. In that sense, the sci-fi world suggested by the show feels incredibly plausible, real and lived-in. It’s easy to connect with. I think this is one of the greatest strengths of the show. I think it’s one of the best portrayals of what the near future is likely to look like of anything on TV. And as you know from the site, I’m someone who downloads a lot of sci-fi, and that context is going to inform my Upload review.
There are some elements of this vision of the future that feel like they stem from modern controversial political motivations, but they feel diegetic to the show’s world, especially given the show’s setting in New York and LA, and not like political messages in and of themselves. Let me explain what I mean here. There may be a debate in 2020 about whether recorded verbal consent should be required for casual sex; but the show isn’t arguing that it should be, it’s envisioning that in 2033 in New York it probably will be. If that makes sense.
The actual technology that’s used as the crux of the show is the technology to upload consciousness into a digital, and thus, eternal world, which is an incredibly expensive procedure. This contributes to the central theme of the show, which is the divide between rich and poor. The show begins with the main character Nathan, dying in a car crash under mysterious circumstances related to his start-up project, which would allow the poor to gain access to the eternal afterlife in the cloud. It’s constantly juxtaposing the living conditions of Nora, a low-paid customer service agent at the afterlife service who shares a cramped studio apartment in New York, with Nathan’s girlfriend, Ingrid, an upper-class LA socialite who spends insane amounts of money on increasingly bizarre futuristic beauty products.
There’s a scene in the show that perfectly illustrates this class divide, where Nathan’s… niece? Little sister? Daughter? Come to think of it, it’s kind of unclear what their relationship is. Anyway, she goes to have dinner with socialite Ingrid’s family, and she’s surprised to find a bone in her chicken, because lower-class families in this future typically eat 3d-printed and processed food.
So, I think the sci-fi world they created here was great. One of the best on TV. And then, the chemistry between the characters is what truly makes the show shine. While I wouldn’t call it a comedy, the characters in Upload are all extremely likable, from main characters Nathan and Nora, to the supporting cast, who I want to just highlight them a little bit individually in this review because they’re so good.
There’s Luke, Nathan’s friend in the digital afterlife played by Kevin Bigly, who has a lot of manic energy and a bit of a rebellious streak. He’s constantly trying to trick the AI that runs Lake View (the afterlife setting) to get free food or to find new ways to entertain himself and have fun. The chemistry between Nathan and Luke is just this really positive best friends/true bro energy and it makes for great TV. Rounding out Nathan’s friend group is Dylan, played by Rhys Stack, who’s a young boy that’s been dead for over a decade, so he’s an 18 year old young man stuck in a young boy’s body, which creates a lot of comedic circumstances. Other standout supporting cast members include Nora’s best friend and co-worker Aleesha, played by Zainab Johnson, Nathan’s zany and self-absorbed girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards), school teacher turned private investigator Fran (she’s great at puzzles) who gives a sort of Melissa McCarthy-esque performance delivered by Elizabeth Bowen, and Nora’s dad, played by Silicon Valley’s Chris Williams.
The heart of the show is the romance between Nora and Nathan that develops over the course of the show. Nora takes on the role of an “angel” in Nathan’s world, which is really a customer service rep that can be summoned inside the digital afterlife. Their chemistry is fantastic. The romance between charming, fun and sensitive Nathan, and compassionate, loving and complex Nora feels organic and earned. Nora is played by a beautiful actress named Andy Allo who looks, both in terms of physical appearance and mannerisms, like YouTuber political commentator Lauren Chen who, whatever your political leanings may be, is undeniably gorgeous, stunning, and heavy-hitting on multiple axes of attractiveness with maxed out beauty and cuteness.
The secondary plot is the mystery-thriller surrounding the suspicious circumstances of Nathan’s death. This is also well done, like so many Agatha Christie novels, and delivered the intrigue and climax necessary to really command my attention. It’s a competent mystery that’s not too obvious, nor too convoluted, and every new clue and conclusion feels satisfying, both on its own and in relation to the burgeoning relationship between Nora and Nathan.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Upload’s central sci-fi conceit in the review, so let’s dive into that. The implications of a digital afterlife are incredibly interesting and the show does a good job of exploring them. What does it mean when your ‘heaven’ is delivered by a corporation, which has an economic incentive to include in-app purchases and add-ons? If you can upload your consciousness to the cloud, does that mean you can download it from the cloud into a new body? Does a digitally created, material heaven truly extend life, or does it replace a more conventional, spiritual heaven that relies on faith to believe in? The show does a good job at asking these kinds of questions and exploring their possible answers, and it gives a philosophical backbone to the show that enriches the whole experience.
Upload is not confirmed to have a second season yet, but I strongly hope that it does. This has been one of my favorite shows all year. I went into it totally blind, knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that it appeared on my Amazon Prime suggestions, and I’m so glad that I did. It was a great show.