Amazon's Upload is kind of a downer compared to The Good Place

From the creator of The Office and Parks and Recreation, this new Amazon Prime Video comedy-drama suffers by comparison.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
3 min read

Robbie Amell explores a corporate-branded afterlife in Upload.

Amazon Prime Video

What happens when you die? According to recent TV, you have quite a few options.

We've seen what comes after you kick the bucket in The Good Place, Miracle Workers, Forever and the Black Mirror episode San Junipero. Now the latest show to tackle the great hereafter is Upload, in which the dead are uploaded into a luxurious digital afterlife -- where they find their problems alive and kicking. 

Upload premieres on Amazon Prime Video May 1. It follows vain coder Nathan, played by Robbie Amell, as he unexpectedly shuffles off this mortal coil and into the expansive and expensive paradise known as Lakeview, thanks to the largesse of his rich girlfriend. But he finds himself drawn to a still-living Lakeview employee, played by Andy Allo, when she suspects his death in a faulty self-driving car wasn't an accident after all.

The 10-episode comedy-drama is created by Greg Daniels, who worked on The Office and Parks and Recreation with Mike Schur. So Upload inevitably draws comparisons with Schur's acclaimed 2016 show The Good Place, also starring an unlikeable protagonist dropped into a wacky heaven full of zany characters and more than a few secrets. It's a high benchmark for Upload, a show which simply isn't as good as The Good Place.

Upload is kind of timely, though. One of the opening scenes depicts a commuter awkwardly wedged into a subway train next to people wearing medical masks. And the coronavirus pandemic gives an extra resonance to the show's vision of a guy marooned at home with everything he needs but still dogged by soul-crushing anxieties. The economics of his situation are also stressful and familiar: The first episode includes a neat visual gag involving a minibar full of in-app purchases, while the less well-off find their life now comes with a data cap.

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Upload contrasts the real world with a virtual paradise, but the same emotions and inequality cause problems in both.

Amazon Prime Video

The exploration of inequality is a powerful and sharply realised theme, but the dour satire sits awkwardly next to gags about VR sex suits. Lakeview's VR firmament offers plenty of opportunity for surreal and imaginative comedy, and highlights include Nathan's first encounter with a urinal or a power glitch that transforms the characters into blocky low-res versions of themselves. But they tend to be throwaway gags rather than springboards for novel and striking storylines. I found myself wondering what a bolder show -- like Rick and Morty or, yes, The Good Place -- could do with this out-there setup.

A fitting metaphor for the show's lack of depth is that Lakeview takes its name from a lake which, when you look closer, is actually just a glitchy looping image. The depiction of the real world is even more shallow than the virtual world, as the worldbuilding amounts to obvious jokes about self-driving bicycles, food printers and well-known company names mashed together. In fact, they're often so painfully close to reality they barely qualify as jokes.

And it's a red flag that the first episode busts out a gag as hackneyed as the "classical music" joke seen everywhere from Star Trek Beyond and Futurama to Doctor Who way back in the 1960s.

Still, despite the wacky premise, Upload isn't meant to be a riotous sitcom. It leans hard on the romance and mystery elements, and Amell and Allo do make a likeable couple. By the season finale there's some genuinely heartwrenching obstacles thrown between them. But it never hits the emotional depth of Black Mirror tearjerker San Junipero, which also depicted a love story in a virtual afterlife. And even as the leads grow more likeable, the paper-thin secondary characters aren't as engaging as the lively supporting cast of The Good Place. More than one interesting character is introduced, perks things up for a scene or two, and is then completely forgotten about.

Despite flashes of intelligence, heart and imagination, Amazon's entry into the afterlife isn't as novel, funny or engrossing as similar shows we've enjoyed lately. Upload isn't entirely lifeless, but it's not as heavenly as you'd hope.

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