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Robbie Amell in 'Upload'.
Robbie Amell in 'Upload'.
Photo: Aaron Epstein

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Set in a future world where people can load their consciousness into a virtual reality world just before they die, Upload tells the story of Nathan Brown, a young and incredibly self-involved tech entrepreneur who suddenly dies under mysterious circumstances. He is given a second life in the expensive Lake View "afterlife", courtesy of his rich, vacuous girlfriend, Ingrid. Striking an unlikely friendship with his customer representative (or Angel) Nora, Nathan starts to put together the pieces of how he died but what he finds is more than he could possibly have expected.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

A few months ago, Space Force, the highly anticipated new comedy series that reunited Steve Carrell with the Office (US) creator Greg Daniels, hit Netflix with much hype but decidedly mixed reactions. Just a few weeks earlier, however, Upload, another new comedy series by Greg Daniels, debuted on Amazon Prime Video with significantly less fanfare but to a noticeably warmer reception from critics and viewers alike. And, indeed, it is, so far, the better and more confident of the two – if, admittedly, by far less than their respective IMDB scores of 6.8 and 8.0 would suggest.

Like Space Force, Upload sees Daniels expanding his reach far beyond the scope of a small paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, or, for that matter, the parks department of a quirky small town in Indiana. And, honestly, if he needed a season to find his feet on the Office and Parks and Recreation, it's not too surprising that the first seasons of his far more ambitious new shows are a bit unsteady.

Personally, I like Space Force quite a bit, and it has the potential to hit true greatness going forward but Upload, despite its undeniable flaws and being far further out of Daniels' wheelhouse, provides a more assured and satisfying debut season. It still has a notably weak pilot, and it clearly still has its share of tonal issues, but Upload finds its groove fairly quickly and reveals itself to be a compelling and entertaining mix of science fiction, thriller, (light) comedy and romantic drama.

And that might actually be key. Upload has its share of humour, which is sometimes effective and sometimes less so, but it's not really a comedy. Certainly, not primarily. Once again proving the old maxim that dying is easy, comedy is hard, Daniels is clearly unburdened by not having the pressure to deliver constant laughs and being free to concentrate mostly on his characters and the story he is telling.

Space Force is undoubtedly the funnier show (especially once you get past its fairly limp pilot) and going by Daniels' track record, it will no doubt be much funnier as it goes along, but the inconsistency of its laughs was much more damaging to it than the even lower comedy hit-rate has proven to be to Upload.

But then, comparing Space Force and Upload is probably unfair. They are, as it turns out, quite radically different shows. And, frankly, Upload faces far stiffer competition from a couple of TV projects that are far more comparable to it. First, the best episode of Black Mirror, San Junipero, also deals with a virtual afterlife and a very particular form of star-crossed romance, while also dealing with many of the same themes as Upload. San Junipero may have been just a single, hour-long episode that was actually quite a departure for the usually cynical Black Mirror but it is such a beautiful, achingly romantic, intelligent and memorable masterpiece that Upload can't help but pale in comparison.

The same can easily be said about The Good Place. Created by Daniels' former collaborator Mike Schur, the Good Place was a fairly momentous comedy series that married a high gag rate with loveable characters, plot twists aplenty and large doses of moral philosophy. Though the comparisons between it and Upload do fade fairly quickly, the first couple of episodes of the latter show can't help but evoke unflattering comparisons to Schur's masterpiece. Fortunately, Upload really doesn't take long to establish itself as a vastly different beast to the bright and humanistic The Good Place.

Still, even if the memory of San Junipero lingers in the mind for far longer than The Good Place over Upload's first season, it's unfair to hold this otherwise perfectly good show up to such impossible standards. I'm certainly not the first person to notice these similarities, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that they didn't somewhat colour my perceptions of Upload.

With all that said, then, judged purely on its own merits, Upload is a show that's very easy to recommend, flaws and all.

Indeed, it is the show's flaws – or at least the perception of flaws – that actually make it as interesting as it is. It's hard not be a bit confused by the casting choices during the first episode or two as Robbie Amell, in particular, who is mostly known for being an attractive but bland presence in stuff The Flash and The Tomorrow People, just seems like a bizarre choice to play the lead in an ostensibly quirky comedy series. Worse, the character he plays is an insufferable douchebag who only looks good in comparison to his horrible, spoilt, rich girlfriend.

Like Eleanor in The Good Place (sorry, I can't help it), his character is clearly supposed to go through an arc that will leave him a better person, but unlike Eleanor (sorry again), he doesn't start off as a charming and funny dirtbag but just a reprehensible and notably unfunny dudebro, played with neither charm nor personality by Robbie Amell's lesser-known cousin.

Whether the writing and the acting get better as the show progresses or if it was just a feint to leave audiences wrong-footed for what comes next, it can't be denied that one of the pleasures of Upload is seeing Nathan go from smackable to sympathetic over the course of these 10 episodes. It's not even so much that he becomes a better person but that he starts to show some much-needed depth below that pretty-boy surface. He's still not particularly funny, to be sure, but neither are most of the main cast.

Andy Allo's Nora is basically the exact opposite of Nathan (guess where this is going?) as she wins you over within minutes of first appearing on screen. Is she funny, though? Not particularly. Allegra Edwards' Ingrid, on the other hand, takes even longer to warm to than Nathan but she is at least somewhat funny in a hateful kind of way right from the off. It mostly falls on the quirky supporting and recurring characters (including the Cigarette Smoking Man himself, William B Davis) to provide most of the real comedy – and they're at least intermittently successful.

Either way, for all that Upload revels in its science fiction trappings and its unfolding and quite effective mystery, it's really driven by the love (?) triangle between Nathan, Nora and Ingrid, and about each of them as flawed but actually far more layered people than they may first appear. There are some major revelations in this department too, but mostly it plays out in a way that feels organic and convincing, despite in many ways being fairly ordinary rom-com clichés. 

Perhaps my favourite thing about the show is that it actually uses Greg Daniels' trademark first-season uncertainty to create a truly unique tone out of a now fairly familiar premise.

It's very light and breezy overall, but there is this underlying darkness that left me quite consistently emotionally wrong-footed throughout. Partly this is obviously intentional as the show clearly wants to contrast its shiny happy afterlife and good looking leads with a satirical and fairly brutal attack on consumerist culture, income inequality and creepy technological dependency. But the result is, I think, bleaker, more depressing and more unnerving than is perhaps intended. That the show is somehow not a total downer but is, more often than not, super entertaining and quite easily bingeable says a lot about just how impressively weird it turned out to be, almost in spite of itself.

No doubt, judging by his track record, Greg Daniels will turn out a season 2 of Upload that will be better, funnier and more fully realised than its maiden voyage. While that's clearly a good thing for the muddled Space Force, I hope it doesn't rob Upload of the thing that makes it so perversely compelling. As it stands, though, if you're going to watch one new Greg Daniels show, Upload is surely it, at least for now. Just give it a few episodes to win you over. You'll need it.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

WATCH IT NOW ON AMAZON PRIME

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