There has been no shortage of TV shows about the boons, the flaws, and the threats of digitizing the human mind, not just “Black Mirror,” the top manufacturer of tech nightmares, but “Westworld,” “Altered Carbon,” “Devs,” “Years and Years,” and many more. But Greg Daniels’s new TV series, “Upload,” is a digital-mind story with a singular identity, one that blends sci-fi with romantic comedy, social satire, and, wedged in there neatly, crime drama. The closest thing I’ve seen to it is “Her,” the bittersweet Spike Jonze movie where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an operating system; but “Upload” is very much its own thing, and a good thing at that.
Watching the Amazon series, whose entire first 10-episode season is available Friday, I marveled at the way Daniels has set up the world of 2033. It’s hard enough to create an earthbound sitcom premise that’s sturdy and distinct, but Daniels has done that while toggling among a number of different realities — not terribly unlike “The Good Place,” from his “Parks and Recreation” cohort Michael Schur. On the show, which is an elaborate vision of self-driving cars and 3-D printers that make food, humans nearing death can have their consciousness uploaded to an online afterlife of their choice. Once bodiless, they’re catered to by the human programmers who monitor them in their heaven. When an upload has a question, they shout “Angel,” and the programmer shows up to help — sitting at a computer with a mic in the human world, by avatar in the virtual world.
If it sounds complicated, it isn’t, and the rules of the “Upload”-verse unfold easily and, when it comes to bits about avatar vanity and advertising in heaven, comically. By the way, the nature of an upload’s stay in heaven — where he or she can change the weather as a human might change a TV channel — depends entirely on their survivors; they’re the ones who pay monthly for the upload’s residence, and each luxury the upload desires in heaven has a price tag for their survivor on Earth. That’s how Daniels cleverly brings capitalism into his concept; even when it comes to immortality, money is the bottom line, and there is a clear class structure. If David Foster Wallace had written a TV comedy, it might have looked a little like “Upload” in terms of the commercialization and branding of eternity.
The “Upload” story line revolves around a guy named Nathan (Robbie Amell), who dies young and winds up in a relatively hoity-toity heaven thanks to the generosity of his girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards). He’s a somewhat thick-headed and self-centered guy, and she’s a superficial dimwit (with her long blond hair, she struck me as Bad Alexis, a cold version of the daughter from “Schitt’s Creek”); so they make a fitting pair. But in his afterlife, Nathan is beginning to deepen, and Ingrid is beginning to drift. And Nathan and his programmer angel, Nora (Andy Allo), are developing feelings for each other, even though the rules forbid relationships between uploads and angels. Nora, a lovely person whose romantic life in the real world is wanting, also begins to realize that Nathan’s death in a self-driving car may not have been as accidental as it seemed.
There’s something eerily timely about “Upload,” as its central romantic pair are not able to touch skin to skin. It made me think of this moment of social distancing (along with the 2007 series “Pushing Daisies”), as longing comes to the fore and becomes an end in itself. But there’s also something universal about the show, as it takes on immortality — our hunger for it, its grand promises, its inevitable shortcomings. The show isn’t a brainy enterprise like “The Good Place,” but it certainly gestures toward big questions about the soul and whether it’s the sum of our history and our personality or something more, something ineffable. Also, what if anything happens to notions of religious afterlife, and the spectrum of heaven versus hell, when a form of heaven is available for a price?
The acting is good enough all around, although a few of the characters — notably Ingrid and her family, but also Nathan’s family — are underdeveloped. If there is a second season, I hope Daniels and his writers will attend to some of the shallower characterizations. Allo is the only standout as a woman whose intelligence and sincerity drive much of the story line. In a world of ones and zeroes, zeroes and ones, her humanity is a welcome sight.
Starring: Robbie Amell, Andy Allo, Allegra Edwards, Chris Williams, Kevin Bigley, Owen Daniels, Zainab Johnson
On: Amazon. First season available Friday.