A week ago Sunday I stayed up late binging Solar Opposites. This Sunday I stayed up to 4:00 AM binging Upload, a new comedy from Greg Daniels (just released on Amazon Prime). In both cases, my intent was to check out just an episode or two, but in both cases I couldn’t stop watching.
Solar Opposites was more like a fun party I didn’t want to leave (I’m a night owl, anyway). Upload, likewise, was a delight I didn’t want to end, but I was also seriously sucked into a really good story. I am very much anticipating season two.
I don’t hand out Wow! ratings lightly, but Upload just might rate one.
It depends on how it follows its opening act.
Westworld blew me away in season one (strong Wow! rating) but disappointed me greatly in season two (I’m not sure, from what I’ve heard, season three is worth watching — Westworld is another The Matrix).
The Good Place, on the other hand, also a strong Wow! for the first season, turned out four good seasons and kept its rating. (In fact, I think it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve seen in decades.)
At a guess, I’d say Upload turns out closer to The Good Place than to Westworld. Perhaps, in part, because both are comedies.
Which is ironic because comedy is harder than drama, but comedy gets more leeway in terms of world-building. (Much of what I found fault with in Westworld season two related to world-building failures.)
There is also that The Good Place and Upload aren’t slapstick, gag-based, or low comedy, but more intelligent tongue-in-cheek fundamentally dramatic stories told with humor, lightness, and a deft touch.
It’s the sort of thing that shows like M*A*S*H pioneered.
Daniels started as a writer, working on SNL, Not Necessarily the News, Seinfeld, and The Simpsons. He got into producing during his time with The Simpsons. He is the co-creator of King of the Hill (which he produced and did some writing for).
He is most well-known to TV fans as the developer of, show runner for, and executive producer and writer on, the American version of The Office.
Ditto the above for Parks and Recreation.
He also produced and directed People of Earth, a rather cute TBS comedy that never got to complete its series arc. (I enjoyed it and was disappointed it only got the two seasons.)
Lastly, he’s the co-creator and executive producer of Space Force, coming out on Netflix on May 29, and to which I am really looking forward.
So the man has pretty good TV comedy credentials is what I’m saying.
The show, which takes place in the near future, centers on Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell), a young computer programmer, and Nora Antony (Andy Allo), a young woman working in the “call center” that handles Horizon’s uploaded clients.
In the show’s reality, brains can be (destructively) scanned and the owner’s consciousness uploaded to a virtual reality. It’s meant as a kind of retirement community where one can live forever after exhausting one’s corporeal life.
Due to the destructive nature of the brain scan there is no going back, so such virtual realities are almost entirely the domain of those who were near death. (The person must be alive to be scanned.)
Nathan has a girlfriend, Ingrid Kannerman (Allegra Edwards), who comes from an extremely wealthy and powerful family. Nick also has a business partner, Jamie (Jordan Johnson-Hinds), with whom he was developing a kind of open-source shareware VR.
“Horizon” (such an oddly familiar name) is the huge data company behind “Lakeview” — a high-end VR designed after New England’s Victorian hotels. (Very elegant hotel in a gorgeous New England setting. Complete with a dial to let you set the season.)
We learn that Nathan is vain and self-centered, but he does have a grain of goodness in him. We see this in how he sets his self-driving car to “prioritize pedestrians” rather than “prioritize occupant” — something that’s a debate point between him and his rich girlfriend.
On the other hand, Nathan has to talk himself out of a traffic ticket when he’s pulled over for illegally taking manual control of his car and zooming through the slower traffic.
As an aside, one thing I enjoyed about the show was how it imagines technology. There was very little science fiction “magic” — most of it seems pretty well grounded.
As an example, Nathan and Ingrid, who drove (rode) separate cars to an event, leave together and have sex in one vehicle while the other follows (unoccupied) in lockstep a few feet behind.
I repeatedly found myself thinking, “Yep, that’s probably exactly how it would work.” (There were a few minor exceptions that all fall comfortably under dramatic license.)
The self-driving cars factor into the story in a big way: Nathan is almost killed when his car refuses to see a parked semi directly in their path and slams directly into it (others he meets are bewildered when he explains he died in a self-driving car accident; such things just don’t happen).
In the hospital, Nathan’s vital signs are supposedly dropping due to his punctured lung, and Nathan is supposedly very near death.
I say “supposedly” (twice) because we’re later given cause to wonder about that. (Is a punctured lung even life-threatening in a hospital?)
Ingrid is there is desperately insisting he be scanned.
Nathan, who wasn’t so sure about the whole VR thing to begin with, resists.
He feels like he’s basically okay, but Ingrid and the supposedly imminent death convinces him to sign, and he’s taken off to be scanned.
(There is what I found to be a hysterically funny triple sight gag during the hospital sequence. At first I mentioned some of the details here, but upon consideration removed them so as not to spoil it. It involves  something that happens,  the reactions to two people who see it, and  what happens in the next instant. You’ll know what I mean when you see it. (In case you don’t, one word: ice.))
By now we’ve met Nora, who works for Horizon as a handler of VR occupants.
She’s kind of an on call concierge, but she and her coworkers are also technicians responsible for building the client’s avatars, cleaning up their memories, and generally getting them situated in their new world.
When she’s building Nathan’s avatar, she has trouble with some of his memory files — they’re corrupted beyond use. (She later learns it couldn’t possibly have happened during scanning.) She sticks them in a temporary folder to work on later.
The corrupted memory files are one of our first clear clues not everything is as it appears. That someone later remotely deletes many of those files in Nora’s temporary folder really tells us something is up.
If it wasn’t obvious by now, it very much seems that Nathan was murdered.
The question, of course, is why. Was it his best-friend and business partner, Jamie (who now won’t return his calls)? Could it have been his supposedly loving girlfriend? (A clue suggests maybe.) Possibly it was her rich powerful father, or maybe some shadowy powerful corporation after his code?
We don’t learn the truth in the first season, which ends with a pretty nice soft cliffhanger. We do learn enough to keep the story moving along, and in this case the journey is a reward.
Because of his missing memories, Nathan is a different person, softer due to his confusion at not remembering (not to mention being dead). He and Nora end up falling for each other, but Nathan is constrained by being essentially owned by Ingrid (who is paying for everything and who fully intends to join Nathan eventually).
One other thread to the tangle is Nora’s father, who is dying of “vape lung.” Nora, a stranger in her own world, can’t face losing her one touchstone, but her father is adamant he intends a natural death that will reunite him with his wife (and, he hopes, someday, Nora).
The father, at Nora’s urging, tours Lakeville with Nathan as his guide, and they have a discussion about souls and virtual reality. It raises the inherent issues, but doesn’t really take it anywhere. The show doesn’t otherwise explore that aspect. It takes the (here necessary) view that consciousness is a computational process that can run as software.
(That, by the way, is not the SF “magic” I meant. As in Greg Egan’s work, computationalism is a gimme here. The “magic” is in the ability of the VR to capture real world people as faithfully and richly as depicted. At one point Ingrid uses an elaborate full (I do mean full) body suit to have sex with Nathan, but she, Nora, and others, also appear as avatars who seem fully present without using obvious gear. Apparently kinetic capture mechanisms are “indistinguishable from magic” in the near future.)
((Given the current state of the art, that may not be so much of a stretch.))
I realized somewhere around episode five that, despite it being past midnight, I was definitely in for all ten episodes. The show has already been renewed for season two, so now it’s just a matter of waiting.
Two shows, two thumbs up (times two). I think I’ll give Tales From the Loop a shot next, see if I can make it three-for-three.
Stay uploaded, my friends!