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A Well-Rounded Future

Admiring the dystopian screwball romcom ‘Upload’

The future is always about the present, but the present can also be about the future.  If it’s darkly funny enough.

I recently finished three seasons of Upload, on Amazon Prime Video. Created, directed and lead-written by Greg Daniels, former The Simpsons writer and adapter of the US version of The Office, the first season, aired in 2020, the second in 2022 (the ‘Covid gap’, I guess), and the third aired the end of October this year – which is when it came to my attention.

Or rather, Amazon Prime algorithms, who by now know me better than I know myself, made sure it did. It’s set in 2033, which looks a lot like now, but with the trashy 1990s Paul Verhoeven movie vibe that suffuses the 2020s turned up to 11.

I started watching it because I slightly fancied Robbie Amell, who plays ‘Nathan Brown’, a humpy 27-year-old computer engineering graduate and budding e-entrepreneur whose self-driving vehicle is involved in a suspiciously improbable crash. (I say ‘slightly’ because he’s almost too perfect – and I want to appear hard to get.)

Apparently mortally injured, he agrees to his consciousness being scanned and uploaded to Lakeview, a (very white) digital afterlife fake-19th Century Americana country club, a kind of Ralph Lauren heaven/hell.

I stayed watching because it turned out to be a witty and often laugh-out-loud funny satire on contemporary (American) life. And because Nathan Brown takes his clothes off a lot. And he has an even humpier e-afterlife chum, an ex-US Army Corporal called Luke Crossley (Kevin Bigley), who is endearingly over-enthusiastic about everything, including Nathan – who he ends up totally bro-smitten by. Everyone finds Nathan irresistible. Even the AI concierge at Lakeview.

Nathan is very much aware of his beauty – and is in fact carefully marked as metrosexual. Many of the show’s jokes revolve around his body, his self-love, and self-care, whether grooming or gym-ing. But fortunately, rather than tediously bitchy and shaming, they are affectionate gags that he is in on – his vanity and his awareness of it and our awareness of his awareness is not a fatal flaw in his masculinity. It’s just part of what makes him adorable. And current.

At one point, heading out, he asks his slightly bemused girlfriend whether he should “bring or leave” his bum bag or not. “Leave,” she replies. He brings it anyway. She asks what’s in it. “Hair gel, body spray, tweezers – just my indispensables”. When his other girlfriend (who said the future would be simple?) discovers a cloned version of his body IRL. “Just give it to me straight,” he asks, worriedly, over the phone. “How are my abs?”

In S3 his cloned body, now hosting his downloaded uploaded consciousness, begins to put on weight because he’s not had any time (or money) to get to the gym or eat right. Almost every woman points this out to him, and he looks suitably crestfallen every time. The plaid, unbuttoned shirt he’s taken to wearing clearly isn’t working.

Nath is so objectified, his living psycho controlling blond princess girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) who pays for his luxury after-life in Lakeview, having persuaded him to agree to being uploaded somewhat over-hastily, has total ownership of him and has to approve any ‘in-app purchases’ he might want. A male doll in her e-dolls’ house. She can put him into storage or even delete him anytime she likes. Nathan understandably begins to move (gingerly) away from Ingrid, who is the kind of woman that other women (who make up most of the Netflix audience) hate, and towards his less princessy, less white, and less psycho Lakeview customer service rep Nora (Cameroon-bornAndy Allo).

However, throughout all three seasons, both Good Girlfriend and Bad Girlfriend, evolve and remain in play, as rivals and alternative potentials for different versions of Nath. Upload is nominally a romantic comedy – but a byzantine, dark one. Sometimes the snappy repartee, farcical scenarios and ‘strong female characters’ reminded me of screwball comedy. Although Upload has to pay tribute to Venus, not least because without a love story there isn’t much of a narrative, it is more spoof on romance than sincere approbation.

Which brings me back to my superficiality again. Nath in his prime is certainly shredded – but his chum Luke’s beefy body is positively pornographic. Luke is a true spornosexual – a fun, smooth, muscular, self-objectifying bouncy castle for the eyes. Although cute, he’s more body than beauty – while Nath is too beautiful to be properly dirty. No wonder Lucy (Andrea Rosen), the impressively monstrous customer service manager at Horizen, the mega corporation that owns Lakeview, is taking and storing illicit screengrabs of him and his butt dancing around naked in the bathroom.

Luke is an Only Fans star just waiting to happen. Later, when Horizen have managed to rid themselves of any privacy constraints and laid claim to everything uploads do, say or dream, Luke’s sex dreams involving his sassy customer service agent Aleesha (Zainab Johnson) become an online porn hit – but only make money for Horizen.

Later he is briefly forced to become a camp underworld boss’ fan boy – actually fanning him, with an ostrich feather – dressed in a hilarious skimpy slave outfit. (And in truth, he doesn’t seem entirely unhappy about the experience. Nevertheless, he is rescued by Nath – who offers to become the fan boy himself.)

The chemistry between Luke and Nath is potent – at least for Luke (Nath is largely oblivious – or pretending to be). In one scene, after Nath apparently has a memory issue after an update to the Lakeview software, Luke is worried that Nath might not know who he is. Nath reassures him, and Luke is visibly relieved. “Thank God,” he exclaims, “because I don’t think I could repeat the earlier beats of our relationship. That kind of magic doesn’t strike twice.”

Though even Luke’s e-afterlife bromance has a physical side. For example, when Nathan is put into skinny jeans by Ingrid, he spends all day complaining how weird they feel and how he can hardly walk. Eventually Luke says: “But you look amazing in them, man!”

“Really??” Nath replies, instantly converted and trying to check out his own arse.

In a later episode, Luke tells Nath everyone is jealous of him. “You’re like Gaston, times fifty million. But good. And hotter.”

He also gets all excited about the lost opportunities that the presence of two Nathans briefly presented him with “I could have been the cream in a Hydrox!”. (Hydrox is US cream-filled chocolate sandwich biscuit.)

Needless to say, the two Nath’s are far too interested in one another to notice Luke’s needs.

Neither Nathan(s) nor Luke is gay, or probably particularly bisexual – though Luke would definitely try it. Or already has. Several times. Just to be sure. But they are both very ‘gay’ aesthetically and temperamentally. Which is the nature of metrosexuality and spornosexuality.

Although it raises some pertinent and troubling questions – and lots of gags – about a world in which your consciousness can survive your ‘meat’, and how that will inevitable be monetised and monopolised by unscrupulous corporations, Upload is less an exploration of a future afterlife than of course the here and now, and how one’s online life and ‘avatar’ personality increasingly compete with one’s IRL self. The virtual and the real become increasingly difficult to tell apart. Death is the greatest reality of life, so the blurring of the boundary between it and life symbolises the blurring of every boundary.

In this world nominally set in 2033, when things will only be even more ‘online’ than now – and the ‘real’ even more shadowy – the online world barely exists. Save in the form of the uploaded digital afterlife. Which increasingly interacts with and competes with the non-uploaded one. Yes, everyone has a cool, wristband-mounted hologram phone, but they only use them to video call one another. Which is lucky for us, the audience, but sooo… Millennial.

Likewise, the cheapest ‘entry level’ afterlife plan at Lakeview – in the windowless, prison-like basement of the hotel – is called “2 Gs”. People on that plan have to be very careful not to do, say, or feel much of anything, otherwise they will find themselves frozen until their monthly allowance renews. And anyone who has tried to live on a 2GB phone data plan knows how that feels.

Although S2 faltered a bit, S3 picks up the pace again and has some of the best writing and laughs. My biggest criticism is that the annoying and already dated (it’s very 2010s) performative phrase “Wait, what?” is over-used. Though I guess that the future is bound to be very annoying. And probably dated too.

And I can live with that. So long as it has bubble buttocks.

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