He’s known for creating two of the great American comedies of all time; shows that are still finding new generations of a fanbase globally, and are amongst the most-watched on streaming platforms, providing solace to people during these troubled times.
Greg Daniels, showrunner of the US version of The Office and co-creator of Parks and Recreation is one of the leading names in modern-day television (he’s also the man behind animated sitcom King of the Hill and the upcoming Space Forc e where he collaborates with Steve Carell again). But for now, he’s back with a genre quite unusual for him — sci-fi in fact —in a show that he says is very ‘Bollywood’ in its ethos: but how?
Upload is set in 2033, where people who are near death can be ‘uploaded’ into virtual reality hotels. When L.A. party-boy/coder Nathan’s self-driving car crashes, his girlfriend uploads him permanently into the ‘Lakeview’ digital afterlife. Navigating this new journey with his guide Nora (who is alive and present in the real world in Brooklyn), Nathan finds himself in the middle of a budding romance, existing between both worlds.
Talking to us amidst lockdown, Greg, along with his two lead co-stars Andy Allo ( Pitch Perfect 3 ), Robbie Amell ( The Flash, Tomorrow People) , gives us some insight into how the show was conceived, why Nathan and Nora remind him of Jim and Pam from The Office , and how his new creation raises pertinent questions about science and tech in today’s world.
When did the idea of ‘Upload’ first come to you?
You know what, it was actually 30 years ago. I was a writer for SNL (Saturday Night Live) and was walking in New york, trying to come up with ideas. Passing by a store that was selling CD players then, it got me thinking as to how things were switching from analog to digital. What if you could digitise yourself, with your personality and ideas?
I wasn’t sure if it would work as an SNL comedy sketch; years later, I even tried to write it as a novel. But it was only in 2014 that I made it into a script and in 2017, the show came together. We filmed the pilot in 2018 with Robbie and Andy (the two leads) and the rest of the 10 episodes were shot last year.
There are several others shows — successful ones —that have experimented with the idea of an ‘afterlife’, did that play upon your mind?
I know, but Upload was conceived way before the likes of popular shows like The Good Place or Black Mirror came into play. In the US, we have other series like Forever and Miracle Workers , which also experiment with the same vision.
However, I think this is part of a new ‘TV genre’, similar to the medical or courtroom drama, as all these shows are working: the idea of how our future digital selves would be. I intentionally didn’t watch some of them, to make sure Upload wasn’t too similar.
I’m a father with kids, so the notion of being able to interact with my family and stay in touch even after death... that also definitely struck a chord somewhere.
So, how is it different then?
Many of these shows are either dark (Black Mirror), dystopian (Westworld) or utopian (The Good Place). But Upload falls in neither of these brackets.. it’s middle-topian, if I may say so.
In fact, it isn’t even like The Office or Parks and Rec, as Upload ’s genre is science-fiction, but with a lot of elements to is such as romance, murder-mystery, comedy and so on. Actually, Bollywood was a constant influence in my mind while writing it and making the show.. there’s this attitude with their movies: if you’re only going to see one Bollywood movie a year, we throw everything into it, and make it as crazy and intense as possible! Upload’s a little bit like that, because we wanted people to really commit to watching it.
- Robbie Amell: I think the show represents the possibility of a second chance at life, and that really came across as fascinating for me. Working with someone like Andy was an incredible experience; she’s the most comforting of co-stars and someone with great screen presence. I’m always rooting for her (and her character) and that speaks to the chemistry we share on the show. She brings so much charm and beauty to her role, and that made it an absolute pleasure for me to act as well.
- Andy Allo: Woah, how do I top that now? Robbie said it best; we really like each other and are great friends, and that comes across on-screen as well. Working with Greg was so memorable, and I think Upload’s going to be a great escape in these uncertain times.
But I’ll admit that I definitely thought about Jim and Pam a lot while writing the romantic angle between the two leads. There are many elements that remind me a lot of them ( The Office couple)
What kind of questions do you want to raise about technology?
Well, we have tried to use humour to bring about important questions about topics like relying too much on technology or the subsequent environmental damage it causes. What’s interesting about the notion of a man-made afterlife is that it would be just as unfair as the current life we have, with the same issues of greed, income inequality, etc. It actually is more striking when compared to the old-fashioned view which has a lot of justice in it.
However, the idea is that science is still the best strategy for moving humanity forward, with all its pluses and minuses.
Like, one of the crazy things that keep happening while working on the show is that we imagined stuff in the past based on ideas we’d heard about — and over the years, they kept coming true!
For instance, I thought if you combined Tinder with Uber, people would have one-night stands and then rate each other like Uber drivers. Then it turns out China actually has a social credit app, where people can rate each other. Similarly, we had a joke on vaping being unhealthy when it was considered a ‘healthy alternative’ and voila, that came true as well.
Do you feel that other ideas from the show could become a reality in the future?
We are some time away from scientists inventing an ‘upload’ machine, but the rest of the technology from the show is doable, for sure,
The first episode of Upload , the premise of the show is based on this character Nathan Brown having a self-driving car accident, which is similar to what my kids in college are learning about in history of science at college. Should self-driving prioritise the life of the occupant or the pedestrian? It’s so challenging with technology and using it responsibly.
Take Facebook for example, it was promoted as a tool to keep in touch with high-school friends and connect with new ones. They didn’t tell us that it would attempt to destroy journalism and democracy, right?
What do you want fans to take away from ‘Upload’?
We want the show to definitely cheer people up during such a uncertain time in the world. It’s been shot in several locations outdoors, from Los Angeles to Canada, and a truly international cast and crew has worked on the project. Our best wishes to everyone for staying safe and seeing this out.
(Upload will stream on Amazon Prime from May 1)