With ‘Upload,’ Greg Daniels Takes a Leap Into the Great Unknown

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The new Amazon series “Upload” was in its final week of shooting last May, and Greg Daniels was chewing on everything he could get his hands on, including his hands. Time was waning, and the set — a convincing facsimile of a claustrophobic Queens apartment — was tricky to navigate. Daniels, the series’s creator, watched a monitor as the crew worked the tight spaces and the director shouted commands.

He chewed his gum. Cut! — another take, please. He chewed his fingers. Cut! — let’s try again. He leapt from his chair, consulted the crew and came back chewing his thumb. Cut! — one more time for safety.

“At least I get to sit back and let her direct,” Daniels said, nodding to the episode’s director, Daina Reid, which was maybe half-true. He had complete faith in his directors, he emphasized, but this was a passion project three decades in the making. There wasn’t much actual sitting back.

“It’s hard not to micromanage,” he admitted.

Perhaps more than “Parks and Recreation,” which Daniels cocreated, and more than the American version of “The Office,” which Daniels developed and oversaw, “Upload” is his baby, based on an idea he conceived as a writer for “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1980s.

A sci-fi dramatic comedy set in 2033, in which the souls of the dying are uploaded to a virtual afterlife, “Upload” is also Daniels’s first major creation since “Parks” ended in 2015. And when it debuts, on May 1, it will do so in the wake of several other notable series focused on similar themes and issues. The pressure was palpable.

“It’s been three and a half months of go, go, go,” Daniels sighed. “It’s been a little bit crazy.”

As much as anyone in television, Daniels is responsible for a successful brand of TV comedy that feels as familiar now as it felt groundbreaking when “The Office” debuted 15 years ago. His half-hour, single-camera sitcoms, with their deep ensemble casts and tonal blend of cringey awkwardness and heart, offered viewers the easy reliability of the best multicamera comedies but without the one-liners and studio audiences.

“Upload,” however, is new territory for Daniels. Gone is the hand-held, mockumentary aesthetic he is best known for. He took a more cinematic approach to “Upload,” which Amazon encouraged him to write as a single contained story. It is his first creation for a streaming service (his second, the astro-political satire “Space Force,” lands next month on Netflix). The plot — told over 10 mostly half-hour episodes that will drop all at once — is tight and binge-ready. The special effects are complex.

It also has action. And a murder mystery. And cursing and nudity. And competition.

“There are so many good shows,” Daniels said during a car ride between sets. Audience attention is strained, he said, so he packed as many of the things he likes into “Upload” as possible.

“Part of the impulse here is to kind of do a genre mash-up — to have satire but also to have romance and the mystery,” he said. “There’s a lot to look at and a lot to think about.”

People love the characters Daniels creates and writes — as in, actually love. The way viewers talk about Michael Scott and Leslie Knope, they might as well be real people. Pam and Jim could be a real couple. Put “Ron Swanson” on an election ballot, and he’d probably do OK.

Along the way, the list of actors his series have turned into stars is impressive. Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, John Krasinski, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Pratt: All were relative newcomers before appearing in Daniels’s sitcoms. Fans of “The Daily Show” knew Steve Carell as a correspondent, but it was his role on “The Office” that catapulted his career.

“Upload” has a sharper edge than Daniels’s earlier shows (including the animated “King of the Hill,” which he created with Mike Judge), but the cast has familiar qualities: charismatic, diverse, good-looking but approachable, and led by actors who have the glow of indwelling stardom but aren’t widely known.

“I think that’s really exciting from a casting standpoint, is to find somebody and see how you’re going to break them,” he added. “And I think there’s a pleasure for the audience in going into a show and being like, ‘I don’t know any of these people.’”

One of them is Andy Allo, who plays Nora, a customer service representative at Horizen, a company that manages the virtual afterlife and its digitized human souls, known as uploads. (The reps function as the angels of this digital heaven.)

In the series, Nora’s father, a religious man, is dying, and he hopes to join Nora’s deceased mother in the celestial afterlife, not some digital one.

“It does bring in so many questions of your existence after death,” Allo said between takes. “Heaven, on this spiritual level, is what my dad believes in, but I work for this company that has created heaven.”

Like today’s wireless companies (note the name), Horizen offers different data plans based on what families can afford. If customers exceed their limits, things get glitchy.

“How darkly funny it is that you end up almost in a similar way and place that you were in real life?” Allo said. “It’s like pay-by-month” on the bottom tier, she added — heaven when you can afford it. “You get two gigs a month, and once you run out, you freeze.”

Although Nora has dozens of other clients, she grows close with Nathan (Robbie Amell), a handsome young upload who took his charmed life for granted before he was critically injured in a self-driving car crash. Ambiguity surrounds the circumstances of his eventual death, drawing Nora and Nathan deep into a dangerous mystery.

Meanwhile, Nathan is even more beholden to his rich and controlling girlfriend (Allegra Edwards) than he was before he died, because her family is financing his digital existence.

“Being uploaded and essentially being owned as a human being, or as intellectual property, by my girlfriend throws a huge wrench in my life,” Amell said. “So although I get to continue living, it’s definitely not on my own terms.”

To create the show’s complex mesh of realities, Daniels relied on multiple directors with prestigious, wide-ranging résumés. (Reid got an Emmy nomination for “The Handmaid’s Tale”; Jeffrey Blitz directed the Oscar-nominated documentary “Spellbound.”)

Daniels was among them, directing two episodes including the 45-minute pilot. It is a rare role for him — “I am probably the worst director of the bunch that I have hired,” he said laughing — and “Upload” presents its own technical challenges. Dogs talk. Heads explode. Characters and objects (and useful body parts) appear and disappear.

On an outdoor set, an actor whacked a nonexistent golf ball toward a green screen, then traded barbs with a patch of grass. In the finished version, the empty space became a hologram of another actor playing Arnold Palmer, who died in 2016.

“The game just keeps getting harder,” Daniels said. “I shot the pilot, and then ‘Ready Player One’ came out. Spielberg is master of special effects, and he had, like, a 20-minute opening shot with no cuts in it, zooming through this world, going in and out of VR and the real world.”

Thirty years ago, Daniels likely wouldn’t have measured himself against Steven Spielberg. But in the era of streaming and prestige TV, the competition had evolved.

“I was like, ‘Oh God,’” Daniels said. “‘His one shot is like 20 times the budget of my entire pilot.’”

TV has become highly interested in post-mortem journeys of self-discovery, in shows like Amazon’s “Forever,” TBS’s “Miracle Workers” and Netflix’s “Russian Doll.” Daniels is aware of the micro-trend but doesn’t consider “Upload” to be following an increasingly well-trod metaphysical path.

Ask about “Black Mirror,” and he is quick to tell you he devised and sold the idea for “Upload” well before the debut of “San Junipero” — an episode that won two Emmys in 2017 for its story set in a digital hereafter.

Ask about “The Good Place,” however, and he is thoughtful to the point of appearing vulnerable. “The Good Place” wasn’t TV’s only comedy about the afterlife, as he noted. But it was the only one put out by his “Parks and Recreation” co-creator, Michael Schur.

“I couldn’t believe that Mike had the idea for ‘The Good Place’ while I was doing this,” Daniels said. “I don’t watch ‘The Good Place’ because of the similarities. I don’t want to watch it.”

Given the creators’ shared history, comparisons between the shows will be inevitable. Each is a high-concept comedy set in an afterworld with design flaws and equally flawed but charming staff. But “Upload” has a detailed and believable universe all its own.

Perhaps its greatest distinguishing feature is the focus on technology and class. The tone is sometimes dark, not just darkly funny, and even frightening.

Daniels said he’d wanted realism, a version of the near-future that was convincing and recognizable. A Tinder-like app lets people rate their hookups. Unemployment might keep you out of heaven.

“For the pitch, I was referencing Kafka and Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’” he said. “That’s, to me, why to do it, because it feels like it says something about income inequality and capitalism.”

Traditional notions of heaven, are about “both living past your body’s death but also, supposedly, some sort of fairness or ultimate reward for the good and the meek,” he added. “In this version, that’s not happening — it’s just the rich and capitalistic getting it.”

That pitch had traveled its own Kafkaesque journey, metamorphosing as it went. Daniels conceived an early version while brainstorming “S.N.L.” sketches but ultimately decided to table the idea, and then later tried to turn it into a short story. During the writers’ strike of 2007-8, he took a stab at making it a novel. He didn’t pitch it as a TV show until several years later, selling it to HBO in 2015.

HBO spent some time developing the concept, but then the executive who bought it left. Daniels resold it in 2016 to Amazon.

“There have been other shows that dealt with the afterlife, but I think the way that Greg has designed the show is truly and fully unique,” said Ryan Andolina, the head of comedy at Amazon Studios. Andolina also bought Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag,” a favorite of Daniels’s, and he viewed “Upload” as another kind of auteur comedy. “Greg is very meticulous and specific, and had a very clear idea of what the show was.”

It would’ve been easy for Daniels to make another network mockumentary, but he seems determined to push himself. “Space Force” will reunite him with Carell, who pitched him the show in July 2018, not long after President Trump announced his desire to create a new military branch of the same name.

The Netflix series is not quite science fiction, though there are spaceships, and the cast and cinematic production signal a significant budget. Another thing it isn’t: a network mockumentary.

“Mockumentary is terrific — it’s a really fun style,” he said. “But after nine years of ‘The Office’ and seven years of ‘Parks and Recreation,’ I don’t know, I felt like I wanted to do something else.”

He paused, then laughed. “After dealing with this many green screens, I could see going back to mockumentary.”

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