5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'Upload'
September 15, 2020
Despite the pandemic, a plethora of good content was released throughout the summer, and Upload is no exception. If you were like me and initially a bit hesitant to watch a show about a self-contained world, considering we all currently live in microscopic communities much smaller than we were used to in pre-COVID times, wait no longer as Upload will soon get a season two and the first is well worth a watch.
Upload’s self-contained world may not provide the supreme escapism its world-within-a-world advertises (an idyllic app programmed in heaven), but the show makes quick work of proving that even in a world excellent at coding and consciousness uploading of the deceased, heaven is far from perfect. While there are many television shows out there that examine the imperfections of the afterlife, there is a lot to be learned from a master comedic writer like Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Rec, Space Force), as he gets to run rampant with a version that feels all too possible in the not so distant future.
Here are five takeaways from a show that provides more of a warning in lieu of idealistic escapism, as society will no doubt soon confront the merits of A.I. and the eventual moral quandaries of how we store human memories—and what we do with them.
1. Great Stakes. Upload’s protagonist Nathan (Robbie Amell) faces his own immortality in the pilot episode after he suffers a near-fatal car accident—go to the OR and try to save his punctured lung, or choose to have his body frozen and his consciousness uploaded to an app controlled version of heaven (this procedure involves a gruesome beheading, by the way). To complicate the choice, Nathan’s girlfriend begs him to choose to become an Upload so they can be together forever which would sound romantic, save for the fact that Nathan’s girlfriend is a selfish, image-obsessed nightmare. Nathan starts to break up with her, but in a moment of confusion and desperation, he signs his life over to the Upload app—which his girlfriend is paying for, by the way. In this world, the afterlife is for people with money...and she now controls the existence of his consciousness and can delete him at any moment. Life and death, even digitally, are some of the highest stakes you can introduce.
2. A Forbidden Romance. The driving force of this all too relevant show is the excellent chemistry between Nathan and Nora (played by Andy Allo). Nora works for the app company simulating Lake View, aka “heaven.” As Nora is faced with the mortality of her father (and works to earn a high enough star rating to secure her employee discount to get him into Lake View) she lets her guard down and starts to connect on an intimate level with Nathan. One might guess that a close connection between an employed app “angel” and an uploaded consciousness into a paid-for heaven is frowned upon, and hence a futuristic Romeo and Juliet story is born. The excellent chemistry between Amell and Allo along with the quippy writing will have audiences instantly rooting for these two people who—in spite of a world beholden to big corporate advertising—still believe in the idea of a soul.
3. An Excellent Mystery. Despite Nathan’s vanity (he’s always annoyed by a hair out of place in the afterlife) he was pursuing the altruistic goal of creating a more equitable version of heaven while he was alive. This caused his unexplainable death in a self-driving car that never makes mistakes. Soon it’s pointed out to Nathan that his life’s goal may have also caused his murder. The question is, how do you solve the mystery of your own death when you can’t escape a corporate sponsored contained afterlife? Hence, Upload has a secondary story engine that keeps the viewer tuning in for more. The more of those you have, the better chance you have of continuing the saga.
4. The Best Friend. Nathan has a tough time making friends with the other uploads who seem to mostly accept their new lives in a limited alternate reality. Luckily for Nathan, Luke (Kevin Bigley) is an agro veteran with some serious PTSD looking for a new best friend. Luke does not readily accept the app-based heaven and has previously tried to escape by way of a torrent stream that if crossed, will delete your consciousness forever. Luke’s comedic time when telling Nathan IRL he had no legs, but in heaven he’s got two working sticks, is the dark comedy one wishes filled the world of Upload more frequently. In fact, if there’s anything this world is lacking, it’s just more details about the people who live in it. Luke is a unique character and breath of fresh air because of his specificity. Season two would be well served to give Luke more screen time and to give Lake View more tangible details.
5. World Building. While creating an entirely new world for the afterlife of human consciousness isn’t easy, this is where Daniels' show lacks. There are a lot of funny gags in early episodes about Lake View (where app developers and coders messed up, or are still working to get things right): At 10 AM breakfast disappears, you can’t pee straight in the afterlife, and yeah, there’s that pesky torrent stream on the edge of the forest that can kill your consciousness for good, but ultimately, Daniels serves his plot devices (albeit which are all very good) more than his world. One can hope that in season two, viewers get more tangible details about the rules of Lake View and how they are emotionally affecting its residents.
Final Takeaways: In a TV scape that is always ready to examine the afterlife, Upload is worth the watch for Daniels’s unique humor, his excellent story stakes, and the fact that this corporate-sponsored world feels like a reality that humans could actually have to face in the not-so-distant future. If forced to face all the moral quandaries that are likely coming in our lifetime, it is nice to do so with a side of Daniels' existential crisis-induced, love story-filled humor.
Written by: Lindsay StidhamLindsay holds an MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She has overseen two scripts from script to screen as a writer/ producer. SPOONER, starring Matthew Lillard (SLAMDANCE), and DOUCHEBAG (SUNDANCE) both released theatrically. Most recently Lindsay sold PLAY NICE starring Mary Lynn Rajskub. The series was distributed on Hulu. Recent directing endeavors include the Walla Walla premiering (and best screenplay nominated) TIL DEATH DO US PART, and the music video for Bible Belt’s Tomorrow All Today. Lindsay is currently working on an interactive romcom for the production company Effin' Funny, and a feature film script for Smarty Pants Pictures. Lindsay also currently works as an Adjunct Screenwriting Faculty member at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. You can follow her work here: https://lindsaystidham.onfabrik.com/