Pop culture is suffused with attempts to escape from reality. I’ve lost count of how many TV shows and movies play around with questions of parallel worlds, virtual simulations, supernatural false realities, and artificial intelligence—not to mention the so-called “nonfiction” cable shows hunting for parallel worlds, interdimensional portals, and star gates to heaven. Just as the Victorians kept searching in vain for proof of an afterlife to justify their moral rigidity, our current culture seems to want nothing more than proof that this world is a fiction to justify amoral indifference and egoism. Seriously, if one more TV show goes down the road of parallel universes or false realities, I think I will stop watching altogether.
These questions of existential angst are heady stuff for adult dramas, but to find them in a cartoon meant for family viewing is quite bizarre, more so when the series in question all but begs its adolescent viewers to contemplate Gnostic ideas about whether to accept a false reality. Therefore, I couldn’t help but compare the new season of the Netflix animated series The Hollow to Amazon Prime’s recent comedy Upload, both of which dealt with remarkably similar themes.
In 2018, I reviewed the first season of The Hollow, which told the story of three teenagers who awoke in a strange fantasy land with no memory of who they were or how they got there. The first season was beautifully rendered in attractive 2-D animation, creating a classic look that effectively wrapped the show’s ultimate mystery in the comforting style of Scooby-Doo or Looney Tunes. Each episode was entertaining, with just enough mystery to provide pleasant forward momentum among the clever puzzles and surreal landscapes. As I wrote then, during that first season, the characters contemplated their fate and speculated whether they were dead, in a parallel universe, or trapped in a virtual reality.
Spoiler alert: After this point, I will be discussing the finale of season 1 of The Hollow. If you haven’t watched it and intend to, don’t read this until you do. If you’ve seen it, you’re safe until the next spoiler alert below.
Well, as it happened, the first season ended disastrously when showrunner Vito Viscomi and his team (the list of credited creators and producers is far too long to list here) made the catastrophic choice to not only reveal that the cartoon was nothing but a video game played by contestants on a fictional game show but to render that reveal in cheaply produced live-action with the voice actors dubbing over the live-action actors, thus offending both reason and aesthetics. As I wrote at the time, this choice “breaks the suspension of disbelief by calling attention to the artificiality of the cartoon itself and therefore to the very artificiality of both character and narrative as elements of storytelling.” It also meant that everything we watched for the first nine and a half enjoyable episodes was moot.
So how do you come back from that? In Season Two, Viscomi et al. seem to take the note, at least for a while, and simply ignore most of the first-season finale. Our three heroes, rational Adam (Adrian Petriw), compassionate Mira (Ashleigh Ball), and insecure Kai (Connor Parnall), awake in what they think are their own homes, restored to cartoon form. When their personal nightmares begin infiltrating their neighborhood and glitches in reality start to accumulate, they set off on another adventure through the video game from season one, traveling across and through another set of breathtaking backgrounds and amusing puzzles to solve the mystery of why escaping the video game didn’t release them into reality. Once again, they consider whether they are dead, in a new level of the game, or something worse.
The new season offers another rich visual feast, with beautiful backgrounds and colorful characters, though the dissipation of the original mystery removes a level of fun, and the new backdrops never quite match the first set in quality or creativity. Mysteries are always more interesting than their solution. The puzzles in each episode are modestly clever, and the story allows for some character growth. The world has opened up some, and the overall theme of the new season is the importance of friendship, highlighted both in the characters’ commitment to one another and in the conflicts that arise when they attempt to reconcile with the other team of teens that they defeated in the first season. The producers are less restrained this season, making subtext from the first season into text. The subtle hints about Adam’s sexuality, hinted at tentatively last season, are now explicit, and he proudly proclaims “I’m gay.” But the show allows only for half-measures. It isn’t clear why the producers would assign sexuality to a character to have it serve no purpose. Adam is perhaps the first gay epic hero in a cartoon of this type (I am sure anime has some, but I am not familiar with them), but the show does nothing with this, even when it might have been relevant to the conflict that formed a central storyline. Adam might as well have announced he was Mormon or from Mozambique for all the difference it made. Frankly, the character’s sexuality was a more active storyline in the first season, when the show’s coy reticence meant it had to show rather than tell.
Similarly, the show happily revises the characters and their relationships in ways that remake the show into something different. In the first season, with the characters’ memories wiped, they were strangers to each other, allowing for moments of both self-discovery and interpersonal discovery. This year, they have been reconfigured. Now, we learn that they are all friends in the real world and have known each other since they were in grade school. While doing so can enhance the interpersonal drama, it comes at the cost of credibility. It shrinks the show’s world and makes the overarching story become bizarre—in a bad way. They were more enjoyable as strangers who grew to like each other than as longtime friends from the same neighborhood who all somehow ended up on a live global game show.
Spoiler alert: I am now going to discuss the final revelation from Season Two. Be warned.
The final revelation of Season Two is, again, ridiculous. It’s not as awful as Season One, but it’s bad in its own way. Our heroes discover that the evil video game company made an illegal copy of their consciousness and used it to create avatars in a Sims-style video game where players can torture “real” people. Our heroes are not the characters from Season One but rather the copies, or so the show says. By the end of the season, the game show host has (somehow) moved our heroes’ homes to a private server away from sadistic external players because he felt guilty (?) and our heroes, knowing themselves to be conscious simulations in a fake reality simply return to their everyday lives, mutually agreeing to pretend that the simulation is real life and that their fake digital relatives are close enough to accept as family. They have all agreed that the digital world is worth fighting for, and so long as it is meaningful to them and real (enough) for them, then their lives have meaning and they should not attempt suicide.
The trouble is that the ending is riven with logic problems. Our heroes want to save The Hollow video game world because it has value, but they happily decamp back to their boring and separate digital hometown simulation, abandoning the game forever while claiming to live for it. (A final tag suggests that the separation of the two worlds did not occur as stated.) Worse, our heroes themselves note that non-player characters have had their identities changed and their memories reconfigured. Yet they don’t doubt their own minds now that they are non-player characters. This omission is glaring considering their memories seem to reference their lives in the simulation, and even the set of the Season One finale is now a part of the simulation in cartoon form—a bizarre development since criminals don’t usually recreate the evidence of their crimes. What seems to be heading toward a young-adult version of Dark City instead leads nowhere, and it is not at all clear that Viscomi et al. played out the logic of their own narrative unless they are playing a very long game of waiting for future seasons that may never come for a final revelation. The show had two chances and blew them both, so I somehow doubt it.
I waited the entire season for the other shoe to drop—to find out that their minds had been swapped and digital clones were in their bodies, to find out that the video game was a cover for some deeper reality, or even to find out that our heroes were planning some way to take down the evil corporation and become masters of their own world. I know it’s a lot to ask for a cartoon aimed at young adults, but since the show is so enjoyable on an episode-by-episode basis, I was disappointed that it abandoned likeable characters to an existential horror whose implications the production team seems not to notice in order to deliver a lesson that a comforting lie is the best we can hope for in a world where good is an accidental byproduct of systemic evil. Again, for a family cartoon, having all the characters just accept that the world is run by evil sadists and there’s nothing we can really do about it except lie to ourselves is already pretty dark, and a damning reflection of where our society is today.
But at least there is a moral philosophy behind The Hollow. The idea that our lives have meaning because we choose to create that meaning for ourselves is a defensible position, locating the moral center within the self rather than in the external world. Agreeing to live within the evil framework of a distant tyrant in order to preserve a little bit of our own humanity is, again, defensible, even if it smacks too much of a kiddie version of a personal Vichy government.
The darkness beneath a candy-colored exterior reminded me of another recent show. Amazon Prime’s comedy Upload dealt with similar existential questions, with similarly ambiguous results. Upload tells the story of Nathan (Robbie Amell, playing yet another version of his usual Robbie Amell character), a young man who chooses to upload his consciousness to a digital afterlife rather than risk dying during an operation following a car accident. The digital afterlife is a corporate creation, not unlike The Hollow, but with less magic and much less purpose. The departed get to choose from digital lifestyles like Victorian lakeside hotel, casino party, tropical vacation, etc. and can laze about in simulated luxury as long as their relatives keep paying for their in-app purchases and upsold amenities.
Upload asks us to believe that our consciousness can be digitized (almost certainly impossible), and it only once feints toward the fact that these digital deceased might well be nothing more than copies of the departed. In the digital afterlife, the dead are forbidden from working (to avoid taking jobs from the living), so their days are spent in idle nothings, squabbling and moving through simulated real-world experiences, from eating to farting to catching a cold.
While the majority of the show is a love triangle involving Nathan and two women, none of whom is being wholly honest with the others, the show only hints around the edges at the existential horror of trying to find meaning in a false reality, especially one where your “owner” (the bill-payer) can punish or reward you at will. How do you maintain your morality and virtue in a world where literally nothing has meaning? While The Hollow located that moral center within the individual’s desire to find value beyond the self, Upload vacillates between suggesting that when the world lacks consequences and meaning, the only meaning is one’s self-interest and pleasure, and celebrating Nathan’s failed attempts to help the less fortunate achieve a better quality of false reality afterlife. Just as in The Hollow, there is a depressing acceptance that reality is a tool of an evil Archon—again, amoral corporations—and that nothing can change that, so acquiescence is the only possible path to a modestly happy life. Even its fantasy of a future happy ending is to lower the prices and install different people in the boardroom.
In both cases, it is a depressing notion to see that the very idea of freeing the self from the evils of the world has become so unthinkable that a triumph is no longer an escape from tyrannical control and false consciousness but rather negotiating sadists down to a moderately less unpleasant hell. When, as a society, did we decide that Heaven was out of reach and Limbo has become the best we can hope to achieve?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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