It is no secret that many humans are spooked by the idea that our lives amount to just a short period in the history of the world. Accordingly, some humans believe in an afterlife.
In recent years the popular culture has been a tad obsessed with the afterlife. The engine of interest and speculation about the topic is technology. The internet, Artificial Intelligence and a plethora of scientific advances fuel the idea of our consciousness existing long, long after our bodies wilt and die.
We’ve had the lovely smart comedy of The Good Place, with characters becoming better people in heaven, not in order to get there. The unsettling dark comedy Forever, with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, presented the afterlife as a place of listlessness and dissatisfaction. The HBO/BBC mini-series Years and Years featured a character uploading herself to the web before death and escaping the soulless present day.
Upload (new on Amazon Prime Video) is more satire than sage rumination on life in the hereafter. As such, it’s a fun and convivial distraction, at times immensely clever, but never quite as savagely indignant as it needs to be. It’s the work of Greg Daniels, whose stellar résumé includes The Simpsons episodes, King of the Hill, the NBC version of The Office, and Parks and Rec. He’s smart and influential, and you should know that going into Upload.
The series is set in 2033, which is the really fun part. The technology is what is promised to us in 2020, but just out of reach. There are self-driving cars, food deliveries by drone and a running joke is that most major companies have merged. Thus, we get Google-Samsung and Nokia-Taco Bell. Here’s the real crux of it – the afterlife is merely an app you purchase. Depending on your income, you can have a super-nice heaven or a fairly banal heaven.
Our central figure is Nathan (Robbie Amell), a computer programmer busy cooking up a dazzling new creation. He is almost killed in a car accident (don’t trust self-driving vehicles is the message) and his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) gives him the chance to be uploaded to Lakeview, an afterlife place that looks like a grand hotel. (Think the Banff Springs Hotel, because there’s a distinct touch of Canada in this pleasant afterlife, which features “maple bacon donuts.” Wouldn’t be surprised if Greg Daniels visited Banff and it inspired the setting.) It is very pleasant and petrifyingly boring.
As the series progresses it becomes both a romance and a mystery. The satiric tone still holds, mind you. Nathan encounters an elderly man he recognizes as one of “the Choak brothers” (the guy is nicely played with sinister calm by William B. Davis), who scoffs at the idea that Nathan died in an accident. Also, Nathan gets very tight with his "angel,” named Nora (Andy Allo), whose job is to ensure the afterlife app offers customers what they’ve paid for.
This is all very rueful, charming and might make you chuckle. But it isn’t the scathing satire it could be. Recommended for those who want a gentle comedy with smarts. For those viewers it will be heaven itself.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Deutschland 83 (Crave). It’s a first-rate espionage thriller that treads lightly on the territory of larger, philosophical and political matters. It first aired to acclaim on Sundance TV in 2015 and was also a huge hit in Britain and Germany. The year is 1983 and Ronald Reagan is making speeches about the Soviet Bloc “evil empire” and he includes East Germany in that. As far as Lenora (Maria Schrader), a Stasi official, is concerned, that is declaring war. The East must be prepared. She convinces her colleagues that a spy must be sent to infiltrate the West German military.
She has in mind her nephew, Martin (Jonas Nay), a border agent who is smart, knows English and is loyal. He’s approached directly. He doesn’t want to do the job. He’s got a girlfriend who adores him and his mom is a single mother who is ill and who worries about him. Still, he goes and does the work. It’s a wild ride, this darkly entertaining and occasionally genuinely creepy drama series. It will entertain and make you think rather than bring tears of nostalgia for the early 1980s. It was followed by Deutschland 86 (also on Crave), which continues the hair-raising and sometimes harebrained adventures of Martin the spy.
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