UPLOAD vs SPACE FORCE
Fans of television comedy know the name Greg Daniels. If they don’t, they should. After working as a writer on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and THE SIMPSONS, he co-created KING OF THE HILL with Mike Judge. Then, in 2005 and 2009 respectively, he gave the world two of the best US sitcoms of the 21st century: the American version of THE OFFICE and the show that was initially inspired by plans to give it a spinoff, aka PARKS AND RECREATION.
Since THE OFFICE wrapped up in 2013 and PARKS AND REC did the same two years later, Daniels’ resume has been quiet. Then, May 2020 happened. In the space of one single month, Amazon Prime Video dropped one new Daniels-created sitcom and Netflix released another — with UPLOAD exploring the virtual afterlife and SPACE FORCE taking a very real idea that’s actually happening and parodying it. The latter also sees Daniels reteam with Steve Carell, who both co-created the series and stars as the distinguished general given the promotion of his dreams, only to find out that he’s actually now heading up America’s militarized space unit.
Unsurprisingly, Daniels’ new shows are both high-concept comedies that revolve around workplaces, as well as the ragtag group of people either employed by them or digitally connected to them. They each take subjects of current topical interest and attempt to spin them into laughs. But, unlike trying to pick a favorite between THE OFFICE and PARKS AND REC (it’s PARKS AND REC, okay), the battle between UPLOAD and SPACE FORCE isn’t very difficult. One show manages to carve out new space in a familiar and increasingly crowded realm, while the other blasts into political satire but firmly misses its target.
In UPLOAD, it’s the year 2033 — and death isn’t what it used to be. When someone is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, they have the option of transferring their non-tangible selves to virtual reality, where they’ll spend eternity as a series of ones and zeroes kicking back in a computer-generated heaven. Even if they’re not on their last legs, they can still do so anyway. Not all VR options are created equal, however, a fact of the afterlife that computer programmer Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) wants to counteract by building a program that’s free for everyone. Then he’s involved in a suspicious accident, forced to upload by his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) and finds himself in Lake View, a very expensive and fancy resort-style place that’s supposed to be his new home forever.
Across the series’ ten-episode first season, UPLOAD splits its time between Lake View and the physical world — focusing not only on Nathan and his adjustment to virtual living, but on Nora Antony (Andy Allo), who is employed to be his handler or ‘angel’. He’s the show’s equivalent of THE GOOD PLACE’s Eleanor Shellstrop, basically, while Nora is his non-demon version of Michael. Like its thematic predecessor (which was created by fellow THE OFFICE and PARKS AND REC alum Michael Schur), UPLOAD also wraps its characters up in a mystery. Instead of trying to work out whether they’re really in the ultimate final destination, Nathan and Nora must figure out who attempted to murder the former, and why, and also what’s happened to some of his memories. In the process of trying to do just that, they become closer, of course, while realizing what’s important, who matters and how to be a better person (and yes, echoes of not just THE GOOD PLACE, but other existential comedies such as RUSSIAN DOLL, LIVING WITH YOURSELF, MIRACLE WORKERS and FOREVER are very evident).
Amell, sticking with sci-fi after CODE 8 and THE FLASH, segues well from arrogant and self-obsessed to navigating an afterlife crisis and trying to come out better on the other side. Nonetheless, the show’s breakout star is PITCH PERFECT 3’s Allo as Nora, who isn’t supposed to be fraternizing with the not-quite-dead — or breaking any of her tech employer’s many draconian rules. As a result, she’s also the series’ entryway into its workplace jokes, as well as its satirical theorizing about how the industry might evolve in the future. The idea that even our souls could be monetized and subjected to capitalism’s whims for all eternity is darkly astute in a BLACK MIRROR fashion, and UPLOAD skews in that direction tonally, even when it’s overtly skewering as much as speculating. Sometimes its gags don’t quite land, and sometimes it can’t completely balance its lighter and more grim elements; however it’s a show so wholly and thoughtfully dedicated to its premise — to fleshing it out, to examining bleak dystopian corners and to seeing it through — that it always retains interest.
If only the same could be said of SPACE FORCE, Daniels’ second new TV comedy to hit screens in the past month. Indeed, smartly interrogating its concept, adding depth and doing more than cycling through easy gags aren’t the Netflix series’ priorities, or even close to them, at least based on its just-released debut season. And let’s be clear: SPACE FORCE isn’t just the lesser of Daniels’ two new shows; it’s simply not great in general. THE OFFICE, but about an amusing true new offshoot of the US military, this definitely isn’t. It wishes it could be VEEP, just with a sillier scenario, but it’s not that either. That said, after its first ten episodes, it’s hard not to think that Armando Iannucci should’ve made this, Daniels should’ve instead taken the reins on AVENUE 5 and both might’ve turned out better.
While he’s never named, and an on-screen stand-on is never seen or heard either (but tweets are referenced, naturally), SPACE FORCE takes Donald Trump’s desire to create a sixth branch of the military to oversee space and endeavors to turn it into a sitcom. One issue, and it’s a huge one: the real-life idea is already so ridiculous — complete with recruitment videos encouraging people to “plan for what's possible while it's still impossible” — that making something up and making fun of the fictionalized outcome was always likely to pale in comparison. And so, SPACE FORCE struggles. It struggles to work out exactly what it wants to be, it struggles to make good use of Carell as General Mark Naird, and Carell struggles with a forceful gruff voice that always sounds false. The show also struggles to come up with jokes that aren’t obvious and tired, and to conjure up episode-long plots that don’t fit that description. Its second episode is all about trying to get a ‘chimpstronaut’ (yes, that’s exactly what you think it is) to repair a just-launched spacecraft by enticing the primate with the promise of bananas. Yes, really.
SPACE FORCE keeps struggling when it’s trying to be obvious about its real-world links (look out for elected representatives called Pitosi, Schugler and Anabela Ysidro-Campos). Even when it’s just pondering how a poorly conceived government department charged with expanding the military’s might to intergalactic conditions would even function, let alone handle the mission to get boots back on the moon as quickly as possible, it struggles with knowing where to devote its focus. Given the stacked but largely underused supporting cast — which includes Lisa Kudrow, Noah Emmerich, Dan Bakkedahl, Diana Silvers, Tawny Newsome, Jimmy O. Yang, Jane Lynch, Patrick Warburton, Diedrich Bader, Jessica St. Clair, Kaitlin Olson, the late Fred Willard in his last role and Ben Schwartz trying to reclaim the Jean-Ralphio magic — that’s somewhat unsurprising, with the show often resembling a shiny toy (and it sure is shiny) with too many buttons. But when the funniest part of the series isn’t the premise, the lead, episodic storylines or even any particular gags (the best of which arrive in later episodes), but the way that John Malkovich reads certain lines, much is clearly amiss. Playing SPACE FORCE’s chief scientist and constantly butting heads with the buffoonish Naird, a cardigan-wearing Malkovich rallying against the government and spitting out “these are combat scissors!” is an undeniable delight, though.
If you’re a fan of Daniels’ work, SPACE FORCE’s lackluster first season won’t be welcome news. And lackluster is putting it nicely. If you’re a fan of his workplace comedies specifically, you can always delve back into his back catalogue. Easily the better of the two, UPLOAD is a series that commits to its concept and leaves viewers wanting more, even if they don’t think they’ll necessarily feel that way during each and every episode. Alas, although it ends with a considerable cliffhanger, SPACE FORCE leaves audiences with little investment about what happens next, or about what’s just happened, or if it’ll even come back for that matter — and just craving a rewatch of THE OFFICE instead.