Warning: This story contains mild spoilers from Amazon's Upload.
If there ever was a more appropriate time for Amazon's Upload, a one-hour futuristic sci-fi satirical comedy about a virtual afterlife, this would be it.
Created by The Office mastermind Greg Daniels and starring Robbie Amell, the series presents humans with a choice when they're faced with imminent death: They can try to be saved by going under the knife or they can "upload" into their own version of virtual heaven, guaranteeing perfect bliss. That's the option Amell's Nathan makes following a violent car crash. When he holograms into his new reality at The Good Place-esque Lakeview, it's there he meets Nora (Andy Allo), his human guide helping him adapt to his new virtual world. As Nathan and Nora get closer, a larger mystery begins to take shape: Who was behind Nathan's car accident and who wants him dead?
Recently, ET hopped on Zoom for a chat with Daniels and Amell, who was celebrating his 32nd birthday, to discuss their quirky genre-bending new series, that insane scene from the premiere episode (hint: you'll know it when you see it) and how they'd fare if they uploaded to a digital afterlife.
ET: What's your elevator pitch for Upload?
Robbie Amell: Somebody said, "In one sentence, how do you get people to watch?" And I said, "It's a futuristic comedy from Greg Daniels who created Parks and Recreation and The Office." That was it.
Greg Daniels: (Laughs.) OK, well now I've been sandbagged because I didn't know that was what that was. The show is set 15 years in the future and it's a world that has a lot of technology in it. One of the features is that all of the big tech companies have their own Siri and Alexa; they've all programmed luxurious virtual reality hotels that you can visit by putting on VR glasses and you can walk around this beautiful place. The other aspect of it is that if you're in a car accident, like Robbie's character, Nathan, and you're in the hospital, you can be uploaded, meaning your brain can be scanned and your entire existence is now in the avatar that you previously wore in VR.
This happens to him in the pilot. There's a lot of drawbacks to it because, even though it's very beautiful, it's also glitchy and they're constantly trying to make money off you. Luckily for him, he meets a customer service rep who works there, who actually is a woman living in Brooklyn named Nora. She's really working for this big company to try and use the employee discount so that she can be able to afford upload for her dad, who's got health problems. Nathan has a second chance at a more authentic and profound life than he was living before when he was enjoying all the perks of being a young, handsome guy with a hot girlfriend. That's not really an elevator pitch, that's a very slow-moving elevator to a very tall floor.
Robbie, you've done sci-fi before. What intrigued you about this world and what stood out to you?
Amell: The number one thing was Greg being involved, which is super exciting. The science fiction in Upload was so interesting to me because it was all somewhat grounded, or at least felt fairly authentic. And I thought it posed a lot of interesting questions while I was reading episodes one, two and three. In reading those I read my own funeral; I had never seen that onscreen before. And he introduced the two sides, the people that can't afford the same data plan or the same experiences that the wealthy can in Upload.
This is a place people are excited to go to, but they don't all live on the same level. Talking to Greg, he said that if people are making this digital afterlife, then it's going to have some of the same problems that the real world does. In hearing Greg talk about it, he said, "It's not a utopia or dystopia, it's this middle-topia," and I think that's a lot more fun to watch and creates a lot more opportunity for not only comedy, but also just intriguing storylines and a place for these characters to still live some kind of a normal life even though they're in two different planes of existence.
In terms of Nathan's evolution over the course of this season, how much growth does he go through? He starts out at the beginning very... not douchey, but...
Amell: You can say douchey, for sure.
What kind of growth is there over these 10 episodes?
Amell: Greg and I talked about that in the pilot. My biggest concern was, I don't want to lose people. If they need to eventually get behind this guy, I don't want to lose them in the first episode. But Greg was very smart and thoughtful with the character's arc. We talked about the first season, which put a lot of my worries at ease and him being a douche also makes for some comedic moments in the first episode. But it's nice because it gives him a nice trajectory to go on and learn from Nora. I also think it's very real. If I wasn't an actor, I honestly don't know what I would be doing. And I'm 32. So for Nathan, who's in his mid- to late twenties, he's got a hot girlfriend, he thinks he's living a pretty cool life.
In episode seven, he says he was just going to clubs and doing his work, and that may feel meaningful at the time, but it takes him dying to realize that he wasn't really living. And it takes somebody like Nora to show him that maybe there is something more to this. Maybe you'd get more out of helping people than you think. I think a lot of young people may think that they're doing a lot more than they are. Hopefully, it won't take them getting in a self-driving car crash to realize that.
In the first episode, there were several shock factors. I didn't expect to see the main character get decapitated. Can you talk a little bit about balancing those "Oh my god, what just happened?" moments with trying to ground it in some sort of a reality?
Daniels: I don't know what's wrong with me, but that makes me laugh -- that moment that you're talking about.
Amell: It still makes me laugh every time.
Daniels: Surprise is very important for comedy. When I pitched the show five years ago, I was saying it's a philosophical romantic comedy, science-fiction murder mystery and I probably left out horror. I could have put horror in too. I think it's great to have a lot of different things so that people don't exactly know where you're going at any one moment and it allows them to be taken off-guard and be surprised. I think that's a pleasurable thing. As an audience member, it's fun to not be able to get ahead of the story and know exactly what's about to happen. That was a moment where the fun was you're in his point of view and then, whoops.
Robbie, when you read that in the script, were you just like, "Oh my god, what the hell is going on?"
Amell: When we were talking about it, you talked about it being like something being burned really quickly. Like...
Daniels: Hair. I had a friend who had a birthday party and was leaning over the cake and got her hair in it and it went... I don't know if you've ever seen that happen in the candles. So that was how we kept trying to make that about the speed of that. It seemed funny.
Amell: I also love that it's a slow build towards it. I'm sitting in the chair, the guy in front of me drags a life-size cooler over and just plops it in front. There's a slow burn and everything's moving quietly and then gone, which I just love. I think it's so great.
There is also the larger mystery of who is ultimately pulling the strings? Who was behind Nathan's car crash? Who is deleting his memory files? What can you guys tease?
Daniels: We definitely know where we're headed. When I pitched it, I had two seasons broken so there's a good bit of stuff in terms of the mystery that's plotted out that we're hiding. Part of the intrigue of the show, there's also this aspect that he was working on a Linux version of Upload, right? Like, a free do-it-yourself Upload and perhaps the accident was more than it seems. He's also having these memory issues where his memory isn't 100 percent scanned properly, and that becomes part of the mystery. It's just another flavor to make it more interesting. But yeah, I'm not going to tell you where it goes. You're going to have to wait. I'm certainly hoping people will ask Amazon for season 2 just to find out what happened.
Have you guys thought about how you would fare in a world like Lakeview?
Amell: I would definitely take some parts of Lakeview. I think that the scenery is beautiful. I love to golf. The breakfast buffet is killer, but at the same time, it's a little Shining-esque. It's a little old folksy. But I think part of that is also the age at which most people upload isn't normally on the younger side. I think anything where I can continue to experience time with my friends and family would be worth uploading to begin with.
Daniels: There's this aspect that because it's made by human beings, there's nothing supernatural about it. So it really is like the same as current society and there's a lot of unfairness to it. Part of his journey is to become engaged and try and improve things. I think that one would hope that you would not just accept the luxury part of it, but after a while you'd try to fix the world a bit.
What are you excited for viewers to engage with this season?
Daniels: I'm very excited for people to see the onscreen chemistry between Robbie and Andy Allo. The concept of the show is high concept, but ultimately you become invested in human beings. And Nathan and Nora are interesting and compelling as they're brought to life by Robbie and Andy. There's also a bunch of other characters that are played by equally talented actors who I'm looking forward for people to get to know the quirks of these other characters. That's really what the show is about. I mean, it's cool to have this premise that you can go to for jokes and for satire, but ultimately if you're not really interested in the people at the center of the story, then you're not going to be that interested.
Amell: I agree. You really need to invest in the relationships. Greg and the writers' room were so good at developing these relationships between myself and Nora, and between Nathan and Ingrid and Luke and Alicia, everybody's got their own little things going on and I'm really excited for people to see them. The really nice thing is they all grow throughout the 10 episodes and I think people are really going to dig it. As for a single scene that sticks out, in episode seven, I'm showing Nora's dad around and there's a power outage and what that leads to is a really fun visual for people to see. And it's a nice little joke that also has some really deep thoughts before it and after it, just in the conversations that are being had.
Upload is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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