Greg Daniels had his return to television happen at time that's safe to call atypical. The two shows Daniels created, Space Force and Upload, his first projects since The Office wrapped up in 2013, debuted in the same month—on rival streaming platforms, Netflix and Amazon—during the global coronavirus pandemic.
"I've been working on [Upload] since 2014 and then Space Force happened very quickly...They felt like very distinct projects in my head, but they both came out the same month. So yeah, go figure. It's a weird time, obviously. I think Upload is maybe more in tune with what's going on, kind of. It's very much about science and unfairness and those are like the main themes. It's just, if you have the ability to have a technological heaven, but it's all capitalistic, and not everybody can afford it, that seems to resonate right now," Daniels told E! News.
Upload stars Robbie Amell and Andy Allo. Amell plays Nathan Brown, a computer programmer who dies and is uploaded to the virtual afterlife of Lake View and Allo plays Nora, Nathan's afterlife handler. Space Force, co-created by and starring Steve Carell, was announced in early 2019 and as Daniels said, came together very quickly. Space Force has Carell playing the head of a new branch of military tasked with getting boots on the moon by an unseen president whose directives sound a lot like Donald Trump. Both shows are a bit of a departure from Daniels' most recent shows, The Office and Parks and Recreation, both in terms of structure and style.
Daniels' previous mainstream hits, including King of the Hill, were grounded and focused on character comedy. Upload and Space Force have an emphasis on characters as well, but the worlds they operate in are much different than Daniels' previous works. And because of the pedigree, viewers may have expected Space Force to be similar to The Office, but what they got wasn't Michael Scott as a military man.
"I don't think we were really thinking too much about The Office in the same amount that maybe the audience were...I do think also there's elements of Space Force that are similar to The Office in the sense that it's character comedy and we are humanizing the characters, I guess...approaching them as three-dimensional human beings, I think," he said.
Daniels said they wanted "the scope of it to match the scope of the subject matter." "Like, The Office is a small regional paper company in one room pretty much, and they basically drive around Scranton trying to sell paper to places. And Space Force is a brand-new branch of the military and they're launching rockets, trying to defend outer space. The scope of it is very different, so we didn't think we'd be doing the concept justice if we made it look like a mockumentary."
On the other hand there's Upload, which Daniels got a chance to flex his science fiction muscles on.
"I think that science fiction is good when it's grounded in reality, but for me, who has been happily married for 29 years, doing stuff that's about contemporary 28-year-olds dating is not as easy to get right as it is if I project it into a completely imaginary future of my own where if the slang is wrong, people are just going to have to accept that that's how they're talking in 2033," he laughed. "That's one plus about it for me, I think."
Viewers familiar with Daniels' work know things tend to shift after early episodes. Parks and Recreation course corrected with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and the vibe of the show while working on and airing the first season. King of the Hill worked on the character of Hank Hill during the first season and The Office famously tweaked Carell's Michael Scott between its first and second season.
Upload was previously renewed for season two and Daniels and Co. have a number of episodes written. Space Force, which hasn't been renewed as of press time, ended on a bit of a cliffhanger and some unanswered questions, and for some audience members, it ended just as the show seemed to take off. That's just the type of comedy, "character comedy," Daniels' work lives in, and "you need to know who the characters are to get the jokes," he said.
"For instance, a lot of people will say that ‘Diversity Day' was the best Office episode. That was episode number two. I think when you have watched the show, when you go back and you look at episode number two, it's a great episode. There isn't a feeling of we didn't know what we were doing in the first season. I think part of it is the audience just needs to learn who all the characters are in order to appreciate the jokes that are coming from a place of character," Daniels explained. "And that doesn't happen in the first few episodes because they don't know who anybody is yet. It's very common for people to say about character comedies, I think, 'They really started to gel around episode five.' What that really means is, 'I've seen enough examples of the characters to know what the jokes are going to be, so now I'm getting everything.' That to me is kind of what happens a lot with character comedies."
Daniels cited a number of older shows, like Cheers and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, for being grounded character comedies with rocky beginnings, shows where it's not a set up and punchline delivery, "if you're doing jokes where you really got to understand Ted's character on Mary Tyler Moore Show or whatever, it takes a while to appreciate," he said. I know that's my rap that I would say begging for pick up [Laughs.] to any network executives. I'd always say that."
Upload is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Space Force is streaming on Netflix.