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‘The Office’ Creator Greg Daniels on Returning to the Funny TV Business With ‘Space Force’ and ‘Upload’

Greg Daniels Upload BTS
Aaron Epstein/Amazon Prime Video

Early in the development of Netflix’s “Space Force,” Greg Daniels — who created the show with star Steve Carell — met with the streamer’s research team to get a sense of what its subscribers like to watch. They told him how Netflix audiences particularly gravitate to workplace comedies with quirky characters and romantic entanglements.

In other words, “The Office.” Yes, they were basically describing to Daniels the long-running series he developed and executive produced. The show, which ran from 2005-13 on NBC, has been a binge-TV sensation for Netflix — so much so that NBC-Universal slapped down $500 million to make it a cornerstone of its upcoming Peacock service.

“Part of me was like, yeah, I think I know what works on Netflix, because ‘The Office’ was the No. 1 show on Netflix,” Daniels chuckles.    

Daniels hasn’t written a series since “The Office” went off the air, but his TV DNA is everywhere — just look at the shows that have come from its staff, including Mike Schur (“Parks and Recreation,” which he co-created with Daniels), Mindy Kaling (“Never Have I Ever”) and Justin Spitzer (“Superstore”). Now Daniels is back on TV as well — and in a stroke of scheduling coincidence, he has two streaming series launching in the same month: “Upload,” which debuted May 1 on Amazon Prime Video, and “Space Force,” which bows May 29 on Netflix.

Their origin stories, however, couldn’t be more different. “Space Force” came out of an idea Netflix pitched Carell, who then brought in Daniels, his old boss from “The Office,” for a reteam. “Upload,” meanwhile, is an idea that Daniels had kept in his back pocket since the late 1980s, when he was a writer on “Saturday Night Live.”

In those days, CD players had just come out, and Daniels couldn’t escape them in the window of every midtown Manhattan electronics store near his “SNL” office. “I was trying to think, ‘What’s a good “SNL” sketch idea?’” Daniels recalls. “You could digitize music; what’s the ultimate thing you could digitize? If computers were big enough, you could digitize your brain. Then you would be able to actually live in some of these online gaming environments. And in a way, mankind would be able to program and create their own afterlife.”

Turns out it wasn’t a good “SNL” sketch idea. But Daniels kept the concept in his notebook and brought it out from time to time. While on “King of the Hill,” the long-running animated hit he created with Mike Judge, Daniels wrote the beginning of “Upload” as a short story. Later, during the 2008 writers’ strike, he started writing and pitching it as a novel. In 2015, it morphed into a TV project at HBO, which developed it for a year and a half before Daniels got the rights back and sold it to Amazon.

Along the way, “Upload” settled into its final form: a satirical look at life later this century, when income inequality somehow extends into the afterlife, as humans can upload their conscious thoughts into the cloud and live on — at a price. “The unfairness at the center of a for-profit tech-company-run afterlife just seemed like it was good subject matter,” Daniels says. “It would probably have all of the downsides of any human society if we programmed it, because greedy people would be involved.”

In “Upload,” Robbie Amell plays Nathan, a young man who’s injured in a mysterious self-driving-car accident — and his wealthy but shallow girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) convinces him to be uploaded into a luxurious virtual afterlife, paid for by her family. Ultimately, he befriends a real-life customer-support employee, Nora (Andy Allo), who helps him adjust to his new digital existence, and soon they form a bond between the physical world and the simulated one.

“When I pitched it, I said it was a ‘philosophical romantic-comedy sci-fi murder mystery,’” Daniels says. “There are so many shows on the air, my thought was that if I wanted people to commit to watching, it had to be very intense and it had to energize every part of your audience experience.”

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John Malkovich confabs with Daniels and director Paul King on the “Space Force” set. Aaron Epstein/Netflix

Daniels says inspirations included a bit of “Tron,” “The Matrix” and even “Truly, Madly, Deeply” and “Ghost,” two films about relationships hampered by one person in each couple being dead. The series’ relationships — particularly the budding one between Nathan and Nora — are at the heart of the show. (Yes, they are the “Jim and Pam” of “Upload.”) But Daniels also spent a great deal of time crafting a realistic near future, including those self-driving cars.

Much of that research came from the Consumer Electronics Show. “You can figure out what the devices are that they’ve managed to get a working prototype on but haven’t been widespread,” Daniels says. “I picked very widespread drones, 3D printing for food and clothing and a lot more Siri-type AI stuff that’s embedded in different things.”

That afterlife technology might be plausible one day, “but I don’t think we’re getting ‘Upload’ for a long time,” he says. “In the back of my head, I’m hoping that this show spurs interest and that some of the tech companies go, yeah, we could make a lot of money off that. And then they start working on it.”

The “Upload” cast was first assembled in 2017, with a pilot shot in 2018, so the show has been a long time coming. Vernon Sanders, Amazon’s co-head of TV, was an NBC exec during the “Office” days and says having a Daniels project when he arrived at the streamer in 2018 was “incredibly exciting and reassuring to me, because I just know how brilliant he is. I describe him as like the kind, slightly mad scientist of comedy. I watched it with ‘The Office’; he cracked a code for how to make that show work.”

In comparison, it was just last year that Carell called Daniels and shared the Netflix pitch — essentially, “Two words: Space Force.”

“Greg Daniels was the first and only person that came to mind,” Carell says of partnering with his old pal. “He’s smart, funny and has excellent taste. I trust him implicitly. More often than not, our instincts align with one another. We generally find the same sort of things funny, or moving, or intriguing. That has been the case since we first met.” 

Daniels credits their similar backgrounds: “We’re the same age; we’re from the Northeast; there’s a lot of commonality in the way we look at things. For me, it’s the best possible actor I can think of writing for.”

Coincidentally, Daniels says he had wanted to write a show set in the military for years. “Space Force,” of course, was inspired by the actual new branch of the armed forces, announced last year. “I do think that ‘Space Force’ is a great way to talk about nationalism — and excessive nationalism,” Daniels says.  

Carell stars as four-star Gen. Mark Naird, who is tasked with moving to Colorado and heading up the service branch after his dreams of running the Air Force are dashed. John Malkovich plays his foil, Dr. Adrian Mallory, whose notion of using space for science and advancing civilization often conflicts with Naird’s mission to achieve total space dominance for the U.S.

“I don’t want to work on stuff that I’m not excited about. if I were on a deal, I probably wouldn’t be available for Steve to call up and say, ‘Hey, you want to do ‘Space Force’?’”
Greg Daniels

Daniels says Naird couldn’t be more different from Carell’s “Office” character, Michael Scott. “This guy is super mature. He’s very accomplished and decorated. He’s very smart. He’s very inflexible. He’s very principled and a super-high achiever who finds himself in a no-win situation. But he’s going to do everything he can to pull it off.”

“Space Force” is a bit of a satiric take on Donald Trump’s eagerness to form the sixth armed service. But Daniels notes that Trump is never named in the show, which broadly pokes fun at both sides of the political aisle.

“We kind of looked at ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as some inspiration for this,” he says. “There are a lot of Trumpy politicians out there. I also feel like there’s a certain amount of Trump fatigue. I’m more interested in finding a comedy show that all people can laugh at and can enjoy than preaching to a choir and trying to score some points. The hope is that this is a show for everybody. Mark is this very principled military guy, and I think that there’s a lot to be respected in his character for a more red-state audience, and then Adrian is more of a blue-state character. It’s an interesting conflict. I think there’s so much division in the country, and we’re showing a bit of the division in the show, but the show isn’t trying to be all one way by any measure.”

While “Upload” is filled with mostly new faces, “Space Force” is chock-full of A-listers: Besides Carell and Malkovich, the cast includes Lisa Kudrow as Mark’s wife — who faces a turn of events that goes unexplained, at least initially, after the move to Colorado.

Now that they’re collaborating again, Daniels admits that he and Carell have discussed the idea of getting “The Office” back together at some point. “We’ve been talking about whether we would ever do some kind of a reunion,” he says. “There was a script from Season 1 that we never shot, and we were talking about how it would be funny to shoot it.”  

But don’t hold your breath. Given how successful much of the ensemble has become since “The Office,” Daniels isn’t sure that you could “reassemble that cast to just sit on the set and do a reboot.”

With no overall deal, Daniels says he’s relishing the idea of working anywhere and with anyone, including both major streamers at the same time. “It’s very energizing to have something where you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a cool concept. I want to write that,’” he says. “And that’s one of the reasons why I’m not on a development deal anywhere. I don’t want to work on stuff that I’m not excited about. If I were on a deal, I probably wouldn’t be available for Steve to call up and say, ‘Hey, you want to do “Space Force”?’”

But now, after a few years of taking things a bit slower, Daniels, who’s also developing new animated projects with Judge, hopes to keep both “Upload” (already renewed for a second season) and “Space Force” going. “I find them both to be really fun casts, juicy concepts, great shooting styles. I’m very blessed that I found a couple of good things to work on after ‘The Office.’”