The Office creator reveals new TV show
The Office US creator Greg Daniels insists his new comedy, Amazon Prime series Upload, isn't dystopian.
"I would say this is not dystopian and it's not utopian. It's some kind of middletopia," he told news.com.au over the phone.
On the surface, Upload has a similar premise to the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero" - in a future not unrecognisable from our own, technology has enabled humans to upload their consciousness and memories into a simulation after they die, thereby achieving a form of immortality.
You can continue to have contact with your family and friends in the living world while also socialising with those who have also died.
But the afterlife created by Daniels in Upload is a highly corporatised, late-capitalism nightmare - depending on your life perspective.
It looks like paradise with its toggling seasons, kingsize beds and wool loungewear but Lakeview is also a consumerist playground with its ubiquitous branding from Listerine, McDonald's and more, all trying to get you to part with your money.
Some of the other digital afterlife worlds are owned by Disney or Facebook, and how cushy your afterlife is depends on what you can afford - not just when you die, but how much you can afford to keep paying for your upkeep in digital heaven.
Daniels, who has also worked on comedies including The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Saturday Night Live, said it's like living in an app with loads of in-app purchases.
He also namechecks Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a classic of the silent era in which Chaplin's Tramp character becomes literally stuck inside a machine, making his way through the gears as a commentary on how industrialisation dehumanises workers.
Daniels sees exploring the future as "a legitimate way to say something about the present". And that present is what Upload is commenting on more than anything else.
"[The show is based] on the idea that human beings will be able to provide our own afterlife but at a cost," Daniels explained. "I think the nature of that highlights issues of unfairness that are present in society. I think the two main characteristics of heaven as it exists in people's imagination in living forever in a pleasurable experience with the people you love, but also some sort of justice.
"This is the first half, but there's no justice in it. I'm hoping that it will bother people on some level. When you realise that this society that has been designed by human beings to be perfect is missing this justice element, then they might look at present day society and think to themselves that we could have a bit more fairness now. That's not a bad thing."
Upload is centred on Nathan (Robbie Amell), a young computer programmer who is killed in a self-driving car accident (which is apparently impossible). He's not wealthy but his girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) is, and she uploads him to Lakeview on her family's account.
Once ensconced in his digital afterlife, Nathan finds himself at the mercy of Ingrid, who controls the money he can spend. He also has formed a close relationship with his (still-alive) customer service manager, Nora (Andy Allo) who soon discovers Nathan's death may not have been misadventure.
Daniels doesn't want you to think he's some harbinger of doom, that was never his intention. If anything, he called himself an optimist - and Upload is a comedy.
"As a comedy writer, I feel that tech has a lot of great promise but I find it most realistic when the promise is balanced by the glitches and greed. So for me, this is an exploration in what it would really be like if the six biggest tech companies could provide a digital afterlife for people, for money.
"I'm an optimist who thinks that we are going to get there one day and I think it's fun to preview it in the imagination. There are aspects of it that I think are very hopeful."
The fun comes from creating a world in which you can bend the rules to whatever you want - for example, Nathan's pee stream hits the urinal perfectly, no matter where he is in the room, and you can pay $1 a minute to have the experience of a cold.
It's a bit like playing The Sims or being Ed Harris in The Truman Show, if you didn't have to follow any rules.
But Daniels said he was more influenced by Spike Jonze's Her, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Anthony Minghella's Truly, Madly, Deeply and that ceramics-fetishising crowd-pleaser, Ghost - and from that list you can see he values the love story in Upload, a connection formed between a real person and what is, fundamentally on an atomic level, lines of code.
For fans of The Office, there are some easter eggs to be found in Upload to Daniels' most famous work, plus a bloody cameo.
Daniels is far from the only TV writer thinking about the afterlife. It's a storytelling genre that automatically lends itself to imaginative narratives and a way to look at deeper ideas.
"I think that ever since Dante, this is a genre of trying to imagine what it would be like [in the afterlife]. And to me, good science fiction is imagining something plausible and trying to imagine it really thoroughly but always with an eye to what to say about life now."
While it may seem like Upload is coming off the back of The Good Place, Daniels actually sold the show around the same time as The Good Place, created by Mike Schur, who Daniels worked with on The Office and co-created Parks and Recreation with.
"I've been working on [Upload] for a very long time and at first I was perturbed when other shows came out that were somewhat similar. But I feel like it's a genre now.
"I sold this show for the first time in the spring of 2015 and I had dinner with Mike and he said, 'How are you doing on your show?' and told him I was about to turn in a draft the next day. He said he was also turning in his draft [for The Good Place] that same day."
In the time it's taken for Upload to make it to screen, The Good Place has already come and gone with four seasons under its belt. The two are very different shows both tonally and thematically despite its overall afterlife conceit.
But there was also another: Forever, created by one of Daniels' writers on Parks and Recreation, Alan Yang. Starring Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, the sweet dramedy featured a couple who died around roughly the same time and faced the prospect of being together forever in the afterlife.
"I couldn't believe it," Daniels said, laughing. "I hadn't talked to Alan about it, but his poster looked like it could have been the poster for my show!
"But I think it's like a detective show or a workplace comedy - it's interesting to see different versions of a popular genre done by different writers."
The timing of Upload's release means Daniels is having a very busy month. At the end of May, he has another project out on rival streaming service Netflix, Space Force which reunites him with The Office alum Steve Carell.
Upload is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, May 1
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