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The Good Place is the afterlife we want, but Upload is the glitchy afterlife we deserve

By Trent Moore
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What if we digitized heaven, creating an idyllic afterlife — one that has in-app purchases, data caps, and all the occasional glitches we’ve come to know and love about the internet? That’s the central question at the heart of Amazon Prime’s new original series Upload, and it’s a fascinating exploration of what eternity means when we redefine it and dive into just how silly and wild that future could be.

The afterlife has become a popular pop culture topic in recent years, led in large part by the success of NBC’s acclaimed The Good Place. Make no mistake: Upload is nothing like that heartfelt, tear-jerking world, but it is all the better for it nonetheless. Creator Greg Daniels (The Office) taps into something very different with Upload, following Nathan, a young man (played by Arrowverse and Code 8 alum Robbie Amell) who finds that he's been "uploaded" into the country club-esque afterlife of Lakeview shortly after he's killed in a self-driving car crash.

Yes, there’s a murder mystery, a lovely love triangle, a bit of corporate espionage, and a murky conspiracy keeping the show moving as a loose framework — but at its heart, this is a show about what would happen if we built our own afterlife in the same ways we’ve built everything else.

And, boy, is it a mess. But, you know, it's probably the kind of mess we deserve.

Instead of being rewarded for a life well lived by virtue, Upload's version of eternity is much more like the real world we know. The haves can have paradise, the have-nots get a data cap and live in the fluorescent-lit, windowless basement (literally); instead of all-you-can-eat buffets, they get the test kitchen recipe rejects from Lean Cuisine. And when they hit their data cap? They freeze (literally) until the next month. Is it a bit heavy-handed? Sure. But it makes some sense for the world they (and we) have built, extrapolating out the unlimited cell phone data we pay a premium for today into the bandwidth for the virtual afterlife a few decades down the line.

We get a tour of the various afterlife options toward the end of the first season, all owned by different corporations and based around different themes. Basically, it’s a corporate theme park approach to eternity. You have afterlives sponsored by massive corporations, with themes based around — to name a few — metropolitan club scenes, scenic beaches, and a sierra desert (you can get a great deal on that one, by the way). But Lakeview, basically a Norman Rockwell painting with limitless golf courses and A.I. butlers, gardeners, and busboys brought to digital life, is arguably the cream of the crop.

The more we see of the living, the more the virtual afterlife starts to make sense. In Upload's world of the living, you can fly Economy Minus on Frontier Spirit United, and combined conglomerates like Panera-Facebook, Nokia Taco Bell, and Oscar Mayer-Intel run the world. It’s the slightly exaggerated, decades-later end result of the commercialism and capitalism already run rampant in our own present-day reality. Whereas The Good Place imagined an afterlife, flawed though it may be, based on the merit of what we’ve done in life — and eventually an effort to make that system work even better — Upload is the antithesis of that.

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Even the most expensive version of the afterlife isn’t perfect — far from it. It’s still littered with bugs and lag, plus the human equivalent of pop-up ads trying to push everything from chewing gum to spicy new Taco Bell menu items on you. Oh, and the good coffee from the mini-bar? Yeah, it’s an in-app purchase. As we spend our present days vying for V-Bucks in Fortnite and fuming against EA over loot boxes (and buying them anyway), it’s not hard to imagine a digital afterlife like Lakeview falling into the same traps. Because, heaven or not, someone still has to pay all those programmers and keep those servers online.

World-building is one of the most fun thought exercises in genre, from books to film. But there’s something special about getting to see those worlds live and breathe in television, where you have extra hours to walk the streets, look around the corners, and see the fallout of all those creative decisions made along the way. The thought holds true for Upload, as we get to see the possible consequences of the commercialization of our world that is already well underway.

There's a subplot in Upload about how humanity no longer trusts fate or religion to handle the afterlife, so we stepped in and built it ourselves. It makes sense, then, that a heaven of our own creation would have all the problems of our current reality (and, uh, capitalism).

We build the world we know — and the world we know is far from perfect. With high prices, annual updates for new features, and even its own black market for illegal upgrades, Upload’s afterlife is far from the afterlife we probably dream about. But looking harder at the world we’ve built in the present, it’s probably the one we deserve. 

With a second season already on the way, here’s hoping we get to go even deeper down the twisty, glitchy rabbit hole.

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