Greg Daniels talks new Amazon sci-fi comedy series Upload: ‘It’s a big cross-genre stew’

Greg Daniels, the creator of The Office US and Parks and Recreation, reveals why fans should be excited by Upload - his new Amazon Prime Video sci-fi comedy series.

By Sophia Moir Published: 23 April 2020 - 9.21am
Comedy Prime Video

The Office

Getty/Amazon Prime Video

He created two of the most popular sitcoms of all time - the American adaptation of The Office and Parks and Recreation. 

And now Emmy-award winning writer Greg Daniels, 56, is back on the sitcom scene with a brand new sci-fi comedy satire Upload, coming soon to Amazon Prime Video.

An idea that Daniels has had in the pipleine for three decades, Upload is set in a technologically advanced future where humans can choose to be 'uploaded' into a virtual afterlife.

Greg Daniels gave us three reasons why fans should be excited by his latest TV venture. 

1. He started working on it long before the American version of The Office 

Daniels first thought of the idea for Upload when he worked as a writer on American sketch show Saturday Night Live (SNL) in the late 1980s.

That’s some three decades ago, long before the success of the American version of The Office - which debuted in 2005 - and the Amy Poehler-fronted series Parks and Recreation.

Greg Daniels The Office cameo NBC Universal via Reddit
Greg Daniels, second from right, making a cameo appearance in The Office US finale

Speaking about the origin of the idea for Upload, Daniels explains: “I was walking through New York City trying to think of ideas for SNL. I saw an electronics store that was advertising CD players and the notion of switching everything from analogue to digital got me thinking. 

“I thought ‘what’s the ultimate expression of that?’ and it’s if you could digitise your whole self, and your personalities and your memories. What would that be like? Then I thought, ‘Well that will allow human beings to create their own heaven’ in a sense. I thought it was a cool idea.”

As it wouldn’t necessarily work as a comedy sketch for SNL, Daniels put this idea on the back burner for a while. Then at various points after that, he’d try to write it as a novel.

In 2014, Daniels turned his would-be novel into a TV script instead, before casting for the show kicked off in 2017. Speaking exclusively to BT.com, Daniels admitted that he avoided casting recognisable actors from his previous series like The Office and Parks and Recreation.

“[The Office’s] Creed Bratton is a guest star in the third episode, and I had a guest star role for Phyllis [Smith] that got cut in rewrites. I love the casts from both shows, but it is tricky sometimes to put someone very recognisable into a cast that is more newcomers, it can take you out of the story.”

Daniels adds that it can sometimes work when the actors are so recognisable that they can bring authority to a scene - like the comedians who appear alongside The Office’s Steve Carell as General Mark R. Naird in his new Netflix series, Space Force.

Steve Carell Space Force Netflix
Steve Carell in Netflix's Space Force - another new show by Greg Daniels

“I think it can work the other way too. On Space Force, for instance, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet, they are all comedy heavyweights that you will recognise, as befits their status as peers of Steve Carell,” Daniels adds. 

After casting his two Upload leads - Robbie Amell and Andy Allo - Daniels filmed the pilot for Upload in 2018, before shooting the 10-part series in 2019.

2. From Black Mirror to The Good Place - it’s part of a new TV genre

We know that Daniels came up with the idea of Upload some decades ago, but the show’s early 2020 release follows a slew of programmes created in a similar vein - notably Black Mirror and The Good Place, which revolve around the unexpected consequences of new technologies and the concept of a digital afterlife.

Speaking ahead of the launch of Upload, Daniels says that he didn’t look to these shows for inspiration - and actually tried to avoid making Upload too similar.

“I was actually working on this show before Black Mirror and The Good Place," he says.

"It's taken me a ridiculously long time. When I realised that those shows had some similar aspects to it, I intentionally didn’t watch them. On the writing staff [for Upload], we had a few people who said ‘this is a bit too close to that’ and I would cut jokes and stuff like that.”

Black Mirror still Netflix
Upload is similar in some aspects to Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, above

Daniels argues that Upload is actually part of a new genre that explores our digitised future selves. 

“In the US, there are other shows that are similar too, there’s Westworld, a show called Forever and another called Miracle Workers," he explains.

"I’m not exactly sure why there’s this recent urge to do all this [similar] stuff, but I think there’s about 600 shows on the air now, so maybe this is a [new] genre, like a medical show or a courthouse show, at this point.”

Indeed, all the shows in this genre have different USPs. Black Mirror has a largely dark and satirical tone, while Westworld started off as a dystopian series. Shows like The Good Place and Forever, on the other hand, are more saccharine, with arguably more utopian ideals. 

In the case of Upload, it has a romantic strand - inspired by everyone’s favourite The Office couple, Jim and Pam - alongside murder mystery and Bollywood influences.

Greg says: “The interesting thing is the different ways that people address different aspects of it. [Upload] isn’t like The Office or Parks and Rec, per se. This is science fiction. It’s got a lot of genres in it, it’s very romantic, and I definitely thought about Jim and Pam when I was writing the romantic aspects of this. But it also has murder mystery in it, and science fiction, and comedy, so it’s a big cross-genre stew. 

“I thought about Bollywood a lot while making it, because there’s this attitude with a Bollywood movie, where if you’re only going to see one Bollywood movie a year, we’re going to throw everything into it, and just make it as crazy and as intense as we can. 

“I felt like if we wanted to get someone to commit to this TV show out of 600 shows, you have to really make it intense and make people care about what you’re doing.”

Robbie Amell as Nathan Brown in Upload Amazon Prime Video
Robbie Amell as Nathan Brown in Upload

3. It combines humour with raising important questions about science and technology

Upload is a sci-fi comedy, but unlike The Office and Parks and Recreation, it combines humour with raising important questions about society, like our overreliance on technology, income inequality and environmental damage.

Daniels explains why he wanted to include these societal issues in his show.

“The thing that’s so interesting to me about the notion of a man-made afterlife is that it would be just as unfair as the current life we have, and it would have some of the same problems of greed and the general income inequality," he says.

“It seems like it’s more striking when you think of it compared to the old-fashioned view which has a lot of justice in it. That was definitely part of the satire.

“I think that there’s also some stuff about how the environment has been so damaged that you have to program a virtual world where there’s trees and birds. I think also there’s a good bit there about science and how even with its pluses and minuses, it’s still the best strategy for moving humanity forward.”

Scarily, some of the technological advancements that Daniels invented for the show have actually happened since he had the ideas - and not always with positive outcomes.

“One of the crazy things about working on the show is that all this stuff was imagined based on the past and on inventions we’d heard about, and then some of them keep coming true. 

“I just thought that was the craziest thing, if you could combine Tinder with Uber, people would be having one-night stands and then rating each other like Uber drivers. Then it comes out that China is already doing a social rating app, where people rate each other.

“There was a joke where we said that vaping was causing all these health problems, when it was the healthy option. After we shot it, we realised people had problems with vaping.”

Upload still Andy Allo Amazon Prime Video
Greg Daniels argues the majority of the technology in Upload is 'doable'

And a scene in the first episode of Upload - when Robbie Amell’s character Nathan Brown has a self-driving car accident - actually mirrors something Daniels’ children are being taught about the history of science at university.

“My kids are at college learning about the history of science, and one of them learned about self-driving cars, and whether it should prioritise the life of the occupant or the pedestrian. Technology is always introduced with great promise, but then they also backfire a lot. Being able to use them responsibly is a balancing act. 

“You think about Facebook and it was promoted about it being a great way to stay in touch with your high school friends. They didn’t mention that it was an attempt to destroy journalism and democracy.” 

“I don’t see this show as dystopian or utopian, I see it as middletopian if that’s a world. It’s just a place where the characters live. They live in the future. 

“We’re trying to be as accurate as possible about the inventions. The only thing that hasn’t been invented is the upload machine, but scientists are working on it. We’re still far away from that. All the other technology is doable I think.”

Watch the Upload trailer

Upload launches on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, May 1.