I have spent too much of my reading energy, of late, hunched over edits on a forthcoming title. When my eyes hurt, and my kid is asleep, and the house is mostly quiet, I may stop and try to recharge a little by engaging in that great, American past-time: being a human potato on a couch while watching television. I had heard mixed reviews about UPLOAD. I was interested in its take on the future, nonetheless, and gave it a shot. It is certainly better than its reputation may suggest, but UPLOAD requires getting a little meta about that interpretation because the lines and actors are operating in a future where human life is broken apart by technology, and that fragmentation of norms and relationships does extend to some serious awkwardness among the folks who were born straight into this world of marvels. The actors are all moving through their lines with uncertainty, pushing emotions that are often off-kilter and awkward in the scenes, coming on too strong or not strong enough or just not really knowing how to talk to each other off of message boards and social media feeds. They struggle to engage in basic interactions, misread each other’s body language, and stumble over their own emotions like they don’t even know what they’re saying most of the time, like they can’t even believe the words coming out of their mouths and the feelings they have. It’s the future, in UPLOAD, and everything’s a mess. The digital afterlife is more important than the living, and everyone alive is just saving up their money to prepare for the hereafter. Those in the hereafter have to keep paying their data bills, or they get frozen–perhaps even deleted! (It’s death for the dead!)
The series touched a lot of big themes about death and life extension. There have been early attempts at cloning bodies of the dead, and downloading the preserved digital copies into them. Luddites protest and dismantle. Workers’ rights are trampled as the corporate system of tomorrow resembles too well the corporate system of today. There is a great conspiracy, as well, as the main character, Nathan Brown, was a computer programmer working on a freeware version of the digital afterlives that make it possible for everyone, regardless of their income, to find a digital afterlife that they build themselves. He is badly injured in a mysterious self-driving car malfunction, and his girlfriend makes the decision to upload him rather than lose him. He is quickly beheaded by the machine, and ground up into the digital mist of afterlife, becoming pixels. As is widely promised in promotional trailers, he is in a love triangle with the girlfriend that owns his afterlife and the company angel that provides his tech support. There are shenanigans, and sight gags, and many of them fall flat. The core of the show is the broken people who are trying to find authenticity in a world that is something broken, where authenticity is only possible when the pleasures of the future are rejected.
It’s far more enjoyable than it should be, considering the actors’ stilted delivery – which, I will admit felt intentional and true to the larger world canvas built by the producer and directors – in no small part because the thing no one forgets is that relationships matter. The daughter struggles to keep her father around, because she would be adrift without him even as he faces his death with stoic pride and faith. The desperate, seemingly-ditzy girlfriend is much kinder and smarter than she at first appears and truly does try to negotiate all her relationships successfully even as she fails at all of them. And, the center of the show, the tech-bro Nathan Brown, who is very tech-bro, surprises with moments of genuine character that reveal that he is only playing the part of the tech-bro to protect himself from something he is terrified to reveal about himself. The veneer can be abrasive, but when the human shows up underneath, giving good paternalistic advice to a child upload, or trying to act with integrity towards the girlfriend that owns him at great personal sacrifice, he shows he has the gravitas to anchor this upside-down world.
It is like “The Good Place”, sort of, but not quite, and certainly not as philosophical, but certainly a reminder that the reason we focus so much on these imagined afterlives is because we genuinely need the people we lose. We need them. We need their words and guidance and hugs and encouragement. We need to maintain that connection. The loss of these people we truly need is a wound we all carry. Imagining a life after death, then, where we can continue to talk on the phone with the person we love, to hug them in a rented suit, and to be a part of their lives, even if one lived on the other side of a social media feed, is a natural extension of the dream of tech, to make the impossible possible, and to meet human needs that we otherwise could not. The world feels mostly lived in, broken, sad, and full of apps where there should be human eye contact. All of society bends to the service of the dead. It’s harrowing and sad.
There is intrigue unfulfilled at the end of season 1’s cliffhangers. I expect to return, eventually. At the moment, the least interesting part of the story is the mystery of Nathan’s death. The kaleidoscope of experiences he has in his afterlife, the people he meets and the people he loves dealing with this changed status are the more interesting show. The moments of violence and intrigue feels like something tacked on to a very sad story about a world where grief is the new economy, the new ideology, and ancestor worship of a kind is all the rage, again.
Categories: TV shows