Upload Takes a Peek Into Our ‘Middletopian’ Future

The Office creator Greg Daniels embraces the not-distant-enough future with Amazon Prime’s digital afterlife comedy Upload.

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Photo: Amazon Prime

The risk in incorporating science fiction into your storytelling in 2020 is that reality has a way of turning the outlandish into the shockingly plausible. At least that’s what The Office creator Greg Daniels discovered when developing his digital afterlife sci-fi comedy Upload for Amazon Prime. 

“I hired the cast in 2017, so we’ve been working for a long time together. And whenever anything (similar to the show) hits the news, it just goes around our text chain really fast,” Daniels says. 

Some stories that went around this text chain include: tensions between the U.S. and Iran rising (Daniels had made one of his characters a victim of a fictional U.S.-Iranian War), information about China’s Black Mirror-esque “social credit” system, which resembled a social credit dating app from the show, and of course: the dangers of vaping. Though to be fair, predicting that hospitals may be inundated with “Vape Lung” patients in the future was a bit of a layup. In the pilot episode, riders on a subway even wear masks, which was intended to be a commentary on the future’s pollution problem. Our current reality found a creative way to accelerate that one of course. 

“I think it was Margaret Atwood who said that good sci-fi is just taking what’s in the news and extending it,” Kevin Bigley (who plays aforementioned Iran War veteran Luke) says. “Greg probably thought all of those things were a lot farther off than they actually were.” 

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Whether he meant to or not, Daniels got a lot of things about the near future in Upload “right.” And that’s because, while already an integral part of pop culture’s past due to his work on The Office, Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation, and more, he’s been thinking about our future for awhile now. Daniels first developed the central concept of Upload, in which dying individuals have the opportunity to “upload” their consciousness into a digital afterlife, while walking around Midtown Manhattan in the mid-2000s trying to come up with SNL sketches. Quickly realizing the concept was a bit too rich for a five-minute skit, Daniels expanded upon the idea and pitched it as a book. When that fell through, he retooled the concept as a TV comedy and sold it to Amazon Prime in 2017. 

Digital afterlives have become quite popular in our current cultural landscape (Can’t imagine why – things seem fine!), with everything from Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” in 2016 to this year’s Devs broaching on the subject. Still, Daniels was technically ahead of the curve. And even if he wasn’t, Upload is aiming for something much different then becoming “the digital afterlife show.” 

“I pitched it as a philosophical, romantic-comedy, science fiction, murder mystery,” Daniels says. “I was sort of thinking about Bollywood when I was doing it. You know how a Bollywood movie is sometimes like an everlasting gobstopper? It’s like if you only get one movie a year, we’re going to give you everything. I guess I really was feeling the pressure of being in a world with 600 TV shows. I want people to feel like they got their money’s worth.”

If nothing else, Amazon is sure to get its money’s worth with the show. The series follows a coder named Nathan (Robbie Amell) who suffers mortal wounds in a self-driving car accident (surely a similar news item must have made its way around the Upload group chat). When he arrives at the hospital near death, his rich WASPy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) convinces him to be “uploaded” into her family’s high-end digital afterlife called Lakeview. Once in the simulated country club heaven, Nathan meets fellow dead folks like former soldier Luke (Bigley) and 9-to-5 office workers who log into the server as helper “angels” like Nora (Andy Allo) and Aleesha (Zainab Johnson). Meanwhile, the mystery surrounding the real circumstances of Nathan’s death in the real world begins to deepen.

Balancing all the various tones and genres Daniels had in mind for Upload meant finding a cast up to the challenge. Amell, already well-known to genre fans and comedy enthusiasts thanks to roles in The Flash and The DUFF, was the first to join up. 

“I was literally the first person to audition for the show,” Amell says. “A couple of months prior I had talked to my agents and I said I’m really looking for a comedy on a streaming network with a great producer. And then they phoned me with this. Greg likes to say, ‘Two out of three ain’t bad.’”

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Finding the right actress to play Nathan’s stereotypically rich, yet still at times compassionate girlfriend Ingrid took a little more doing. 

“Like it or not, I end up playing a lot of narcissistic white women,” Edwards says. “There are a lot of things that I admire about Ingrid though. She commands a room, she’s driven, she’s smart, and she’s really good with little kids. Finding those little pinholes of empathy makes her less of a stock caricature and more of a real life lady who is doing her best, but it’s just buried under layers of flaws.”

After reading with six or seven different actresses for Nathan’s “angel” helper Nora, Amell developed a chemistry with Allo, a musician just starting to break into the acting world who was the last person to audition for the role.

“When I went in for the audition with Greg, it was just play. He kept pulling up different scenes that I hadn’t prepared for,” Allo says. “At one point he pulled out his own camera and started roaming around the room and filming different angles while I was acting with the casting director and I was like ‘this is wild.’”

Daniels likely got creative with the casting process as acting in a series like Upload presents some unique challenges for performers. Since the series exists on the edge of life and digital afterlife, the show makes use of digital effects quite a bit more than your typical comedy. 

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“It’s got quite a healthy budget for a television show. And there are a lot of visual effects,” Daniels says. “Our VFX supervisor had worked on Star Wars, so we certainly we’re trying a lot. I think we achieved something that feels like a premium cable kind of a thing, more than the network stuff I did in the past.”

Nathan and Luke in particular, along with the actors who play them, had to get used to some odd glitches in reality here and there. Some of those visual effects include “loading errors” in Upload’s digital afterlife neighborhood, uploaded avatars who exist only in black and white due to outdated photos, and an expansive gray void where the program’s data runs out. 

“That was one time it felt like the closest I’ve ever experienced to what I can only imagine a Marvel thing feels like,” Bigley says. “We were in a giant green-screened room and were like, “Where is this? What’s happening?” It was like playing pretend in your bedroom or something, but that’s how to create a boundless universe.”

Even actors who play characters fully entrenched in the land of the living had to adapt Upload’s futuristic technological quirks. In addition to the self-driving cars, VR headsets, and phones answered via hand motions, Upload’s living world often intersects with the uploaded one. Developing chemistry onscreen is hard enough, but it becomes even harder when one character is alive and the other is a corpse’s digital memory. Just as Nora and Nathan become close, so too do Luke and his preferred angel Aleesha, in their own contentious, kind of way.

“I had to just give Aleesha a very strong perspective about Luke, which is I know he’s always up to something. I just know,” Johnson says. “It doesn’t matter if I’m dealing with him virtually or with a headset, I know he’s doing something that I don’t want to deal with.”

The relationships between the uploaded and their office worker handlers underscores another one of Upload’s dystopian themes. The show explores the many ways that capitalism and big commerce has entered into our lives and in this case, even our deaths. Nathan is only able to enter into the prestigious afterlife because Ingrid’s rich family pays for several spots there, though some individuals who aren’t as financially blessed live in the equivalent of Lakeview’s basement with only 2GB of allotted data to use each month. Even in this upscale techno-heaven, Nathan has to deal with the equivalent of afterlife pop-up ads with gum salesmen and complimentary Taco Bell chalupas always turning up when they’re least welcome.

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Nathan treats these intrusions pretty much the way we all do: as unavoidable facts of life. Ultimately, that’s where Upload falls in its depiction of a future run amok. The show isn’t putting forth a utopia or a dystopia, but rather the logical conclusion of where the path of our own world leads. Or as Daniels calls it: “a middletopia.” 

“Greg always said it’s not a utopia or dystopia, it’s a middletopia and that makes it feel more like real life,” Amell says. “If people create the upload world, then it’ll have a lot of the same problems that the real world does. It could all be free because it’s just code. But ultimately that’s business and that’s capitalism and that’s greed. And that’s probably how it would be.”

And to be clear, Daniels and many of the folks he’s enlisted for this project, do believe that something akin to upload is on the horizon. Speculative fiction is supposed to speculate on what the future could be like. To Daniels, Upload is all but a promise. 

“They are already mapping the brain connections of small animals like worms. The human brain has trillions of connections and we’re nowhere near being able to figure out all of the maps,” Daniels says. “But if you believe that there is a finite amount of information inside people’s skulls, even if it’s like the number of grains of sand on a beach, it’s still a finite thing. So I do think it’s possible that you could map it or scan it and then recreate it.”

That of course begs the question. If…or when digital afterlives come to pass, will the people who spent a season of television play-acting such a concept choose to partake?

“Andy and I talked about this a little throughout and Andy just wants to go on a beach and vacation,” Amell says.

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“What is wrong with that? Give me my guitar. Give me a little tiki, a little hut, just beautiful, clear water,” Allo says. 

“As cool as it sounds I think it needs an expiration date,” Edwards says. “I think then the nuance and the fun of it would get old for me personally and it would start to feel like being trapped and that’s one of the great themes that’s explored on our show. I would probably take my chances and opt out, but then I’d maybe live to regret it. I don’t know.”

“I am fearful of the end, but I’m also fearful of, like never-ending existence,” Johnson says. The idea of both things and both things being final possibly are just so scary to me. I just, I can’t even decide. I would need Ingrid. I would need Ingrid to make my decision.”

“Oh, I’m going. I’m going to do it. I’ll let you know how it is,” Bigley says.

Fittingly, Daniels’ upload plans are the most detailed. 

“A small part of my goal here is to get Amazon actually to do this, and then give me a free upload for having given them the idea,” he says. 

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With that in mind, Daniels likely chose wisely in the streaming partner with the most money to host his Lakeview server.