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Netflix’s Upload: The Real American Horror Story

I rarely review media portrayals of consumerism. The job would be endless, tedious and repetitive pointing-out of how television (defined as any video presentation for entertainment intended to generate revenue, regardless of platform) is the bully pulpit for the illness.
But I was actually shocked at a highly regarded entry into the field this year, to the point of writing the following essay for another platform—on which it generated no interest whatsoever. So here it is, six months later, for an audience that might actually get the message.
Warning: spoilers abound. And the overall argument could elude anyone who hasn’t completed watching Season 1 of Upload, and ruin the show for new viewers.

The first half is spoiler-free, but continuing and prospective viewers should heed the warning when they reach it.
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Netflix recently [1 May 2020] dropped a charming new comedy, Upload, a very “twenty minutes into the future” (actually about thirteen years) millennial thought/laughfest. The premise is simple, if as infinitely deep as chess: digital recordings of people can live on after death in a virtual afterlife.

The premise of an afterlife that’s not quite what we’ve been promised has been done a lot recently, from The Good Place (which appears to be the “real” heaven if not quite what the paintings show) down to the urban-slum version of hell frequently visited by John Constantine. A colleague noted that this show’s notions may be most similar to Philip K. Dick’s insanely brilliant 1969 novel Ubik, where the frozen almost-dead share a virtual universe subject to unusual forces. (I could only kick myself for not thinking of one of my all-time favorite books right off the bat.)

It stars lesser-known actors, always a plus when the casting is good, and it is. Robbie Amell is charming and handsome in the lead role of Nathan, newborn avatar in the digital afterlife, backed by the drop-dead gorgeous Allegra Edwards playing his convincingly shallow girlfriend Ingrid. Andy Allo kills the role of the system overseer who falls for her digital charge, cute as a bug all the way. Other than Amell, known from his turn in the CW’s “Arrowverse” and as Arrow star Stephen Amell’s prettier younger brother, perhaps the biggest name in the show is William B. Davis, best known as “Cigarette-Smoking Man” from The X-Files (and in an even deadlier role). It’s always refreshing to not see a big name star playing themselves, so points to the showrunners here even if the casting was (likely) a budgetary issue as much as any esthetic choice.

The show is tagged as a satire, which, since the demise of the great Max Headroom long ago means, in TV-speak, a comedy first and barbs second. Sharp pokes are made at everything from invasive advertising to the ultra-wealthy who influence politics. Although language is toned down to the occasional f-bomb (quite mild by today’s standards for young-adult fare), sex and nudity are at broadcast-TV levels; it’s been a long time since I saw a nominally adult show do the full bedsheet fandango to cover even a hint of boob. It actually becomes distracting in itself, and I wonder if there was some retconned idea to make it a satire of the casual nudity in most equivalent shows. It’s certainly not family-friendly, with those occasional f-bombs, some very adult topics and no shortage of crass boob and dick jokes.

And every episode contains at least one jump-out-of-your chair zinger; if Nathan’s upload sequence doesn’t make you shout in horrified laughter, this is the wrong show for you.

All in all, it’s ten short (half-hour) episodes worth the viewing time: handsome actors, beautiful settings, intriguing concept and a complex murder mystery holding it all up, as hip and courant as this week’s nightclub. I’m looking forward to the just-announced Season Two.

But.

(Spoilers follow; Hic sunt dracones.)

There are layers in this show touched on to greater or lesser degree that can pass for satire and will probably be perceived at no deeper level by most viewers. A few elements may be long leads for the second season storyline. But many things said and unsaid, shown and unshown, represent a level of horror belied by the beautiful backdrop of upstate New York. (Although the show is shot in Vancouver, like most indie productions these days, the signature afterlife resort is in the Catskills.)

The horror underlying the humor, the satire, the romance and even the central murder mystery is one we live with out here in the meat world, but turned up to at least eleven: consumerism.

Yes, of course, on the one hand egregious consumption and all that goes with it is part of the surface sheen of the show and storyline. The setting, “Lakeview,” is one of the top afterlife providers, if not the pinnacle destination for luxurious prerecorded living. It is clearly phenomenally expensive; a passing comment establishes that continuing Nathan’s existence there for a month or two would cost on the order of $10,000. Only his extremely wealthy meat-side girlfriend Ingrid can keep his bill paid, and even then, she keeps his expense account on a short, short leash.

Yes, expense account… because even at some five thou a month, the only features life in Lakeview includes are a fairly minimal hotel room, the right to roam the grounds and all you can eat at the central buffet. (Eat, but not necessarily enjoy; that’s a later turn in the story line.) Like the most grifting, grasping hotel resorts and cruise lines, absolutely everything else costs. A lot. Whether through future inflation or sheer greed, a soda from Nathan’s mini-bar is $3.99. Participation in activities is as pricey as any destination resort. And so forth. Nathan is perpetually frustrated because his girlfriend at first allows him no spending money, then only a tightly controlled amount, and it’s a running gag that he’s something of an unfortunate among his virtual peers because he can’t buy things he wants or needs.

So: buying overpriced things is funny. Ha ha. Meant to give viewers a minor pleasurable squirm at a brief thought of their own buying habits but let’s move on now joke’s over.

Nathan, however, is buying… virtual items. The equivalent of costume bling, pet treats and weapon skins in video games. They have no existence. They have essentially no cost to the system operators. But paid for with real money — Lakeview dollars, as they’re called in a late episode, are purchased with real dollars by the outside funding, at, we assume, a one to one ratio. So Nathan’s virtual Mountain Dew, free of any real existence or manufacturing expense, costs Ingrid four real bucks. Lakeview bucks are otherwise valueless; the operators quite casually give away a million-dollar virtual prize at one point, with the parallel cash reward on the meat-world side being $1,000. I don’t think it’s overly socialist, bleeding heart or weepy to say that nothing inside this virtual reality should cost anything extra — anything over the running cost of being there — as it represents no tangible value and has no tangible cost for the worldrunners.

It’s simply profit from a captive audience, coerced and induced to buy things.

My goodness… how real.

On one level, already noted, it’s just a yuk for the audience, how consumerism is carried into the virtual world. Again, ha ha. And ha. The show ratchets this up, though, with fairly intensive marketing at the avatars, from floating pop-up ads as they stroll the garden to obnoxious sales-avatars that are perpetually trying to get the residents to try Orbit gum or a Taco Bell Gordita Crunch. (At retail cost, it turns out; you’re charged if you take one.) So even someone who came to heaven — excuse me, Lakeview — to live a peaceful, possession-free life is as pitched and battered as they were while a meat sock. Pitched to spend real money on literal phantasms.

This, with all apologies to the delightfully inventive showrunners, is where it stops being funny.

I have for some time maintained that consumerism is the most destructive force in the modern world, at the root of nearly every national and global ill — social, economic, ecological and political. The insane pressure to consume to our very limits, and shape our lives to maximize our consumption is an acid slowly dissolving all that’s important and real, all for a fantasy form of life not much more tangible and meaningful than Lakeview.

So what the show really represents is not heaven, not paradise, not even an earthly reward… but the “right” to keep existing, at substantial cost… so that you may continue to be an economic engine, an eternal consumer after all your need to consume is ended. A way to be continually sheared of leftover or family wealth, just as in life, while being assured it’s your choice and that you love it. There’s no word about taxes in Upload, and it’s made plain that death is just the beginning… so only marketing is truly eternal.

There are hints in the show that the characters and the showrunners aren’t unaware of this, in the running subplot about cheaper afterlife systems. Nathan and his partner were apparently done developing a freeware afterlife program, although it’s glossed over that even individual owner/users would have to provide a server and keep it operating, at something above negligible cost. We get just a short look at a new competitor, Freeyond, a “free” afterlife initially open only to the homeless and disabled. Cue all the feelgood vibes that came with Facebook and Twitter and so forth when those were “the people’s software for the people”… but before they and all that followed became immensely profitable marketing and datamining platforms.

The one hint we get about Freeyond is that residents will “get to” build it themselves… which makes sense at first, in that sturdy American values way, but about two seconds later begins to sound odd. What’s the point of a user, even a free one, having to “build” his or her own house — even presuming the old, sick and disabled are given healthy new avatar bodies to enable such efforts? The system operators could provide everything prebuilt, for the choosing, at a trivial development cost and none during runtime. So what’s the point of these free-loaders “building” their own world? (As opposed to, say, being able to customize or remodel it.)

The one thing explicitly banned from Lakeview: employment.

It’s mentioned in passing that avatars, at least those in Lakeview, are not allowed to work or otherwise participate in meat-world commerce or business. Which again makes a sort of sense; it’s even suggested that older employees and managers (you know, the useless ones) should upload — commit suicide — just to make room for new blood. But once again, a few moment’s thought will make hash of the show’s logic and reveal the real reason avatars are barred from “working,” even though they seem fully compos and able to do so.

It’s called slavery. And anyone wealthy enough to afford afterlife in Lakeview is certainly no one’s slave.

On the other hand, folks who are giving up life in the streets and group homes and institutions and a crippled body for a fresh new life in Freeyond… might indeed find themselves “building”… things for outside, meat-world employers.

Otherwise known as slaveholders.

Oh, no, it won’t start that way and may never be called that. But the poor and indigent and desperate who upload to Freeyond could well find themselves called to pay for their presence through contract employment for outside service — anything a meat human could do through remote work and telepresence, an avatar could do just as well. Customer service, virtual phone/webcam sex (and, with the encounter suits, not-so-virtual sex), teaching, security guard, remote prison guard… anything. Everything. And with no inconvenient meat-body limitations and few if any laws protecting the avatars; migrant labor and white-slave prostitutes at least have the theory of legal protection, but digital constructs are explicitly at the whim of their assigned ‘owner,’ who might decide work should proceed 24/7/365.

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There is the promise of a return from upload to meat status, but it has a few lethal bugs and likely will cost a stratospheric amount to buy one’s way back into meat life. No, upload into a digital realm is one-way for most candidates, with the only alternative eventual oblivion, their avatar erased. Or the perpetual threat of erasure, unless they are good slaves. (Much as Nathan is to his controlling girlfriend.)

Even without getting into sordid and degrading virtual employment, the notion of avatars working full days as bottled AI processing insurance forms and accounting is bad enough. After all, this is supposed to be “heaven” in some sense; no notion of a desirable afterlife I’ve ever heard accommodates the yuk, “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” (Okay, maybe Valhalla with its endless battles, but that’s considered a plus.) And such working would be, effectively, eternal. Possibly some worker-slaves could be promised freedom-retirement… for the second time around. And no doubt an entire consumer economy would pervade this “free” world and multiply the fostered desire of the avatars to earn as much as they possibly can to own as much phantom goods as they can, thus extending their servitude. Forever, or until the power grid burns out, or until their outside owner/guardian no longer needs them.

*click*. And liiiiighhhtsss… ouuuuutt.

Endless existence as a work-earn-spend more!-consume ghost. Now that’s a horror story. A truly red-white-blue-and-green American horror story. All Season 2 needs is a cameo from Jessica Lange.

James Gifford (sig)

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