Can Greg Daniels Recreate the Magic of ‘The Office’ With New Netflix Show ‘Space Force’?

Greg Daniels
With ‘The Office’ and ‘Parks and Rec,’ Greg Daniels created two of our most indelible sitcoms. Now, with ‘Space Force,’ he’s shooting for the moon—and under serious pressure to top both. Brian Guido

GREG DANIELS ISN’T happy with the last syllable of “Kokomo.” For the past hour, the 56-year-old TV writer and showrunner has been sitting in an editing room at Universal Studios, outfitted with a video screen, soundboard, and foosball table no one has touched. Dressed in a plaid shirt and dark pants and flanked by a half dozen producers and executives, Daniels is critiquing the first episode of Space Force, a Netflix comedy out in May about a new branch of the Armed Forces. He created the show with the actor Steve Carell, who plays Mark R. Naird, a tightly wound and uber-patriotic general.

In TV, most sound is added in post-production, affording showrunners like Daniels, the creative visionary behind such unfuckwithable sitcoms as The Office and Parks and Recreation, the power to tweak endlessly. Two sound engineers, stationed at mixing consoles, keep replaying snippets of the show on a screen at his command.

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Space Force follows Carell’s General Naird as he tries to launch the new, titular military branch and return astronauts to the moon. He quickly gets sidetracked by his doddering dad (Fred Willard) and his wife and daughter, whom he must uproot for his new gig. Then there are his co-workers. Dr. Adrian Mallory (John Malkovich), a “civilian scientist,” proves especially grating, with his knack for summoning scientific data that runs counter to whatever Naird wants to do.

For Daniels, the problem with “Kokomo,” the 1988 coconut-scented Beach Boys hit, is not the song itself, which Naird sings along with in a pivotal scene, but the way the last syllable is isolated and drenched in reverb. “I feel like the last sound of oh on Kokomo gets clipped,” Daniels says. “I feel like that was Kokomah.”

The engineers replay the part, and voila, there it is—a slight ah vowel sound at the end. Daniels’ longtime executive producer, Howard Klein, is in a swivel chair. “Wait,” he says, spinning toward Daniels, “is it bugging you that you can’t hear the oh? Because I actually like it.”

“It’s just bugging me,” Daniels says. “Can we just hear the oh inside of the reverb? I want to hear that oh.”

If this detail seems extraordinarily minor—it is. But you have to understand that Daniels and his team have been working on this episode for more than a year. I repeat: a single half-hour of television, 365-plus days of effort. There’s serious and understandable pressure to get everything exactly right: Space Force marks the first time that Daniels and Carell have worked together since The Office, NBC’s beloved and long-running faux docuseries about a Pennsylvania paper company. Launched in 2005, the show turned Carell into a bona fide star in his turn as cringe-machine-cum-boss Michael Scott and cemented Daniels as a sitcom savant.

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Now, with Space Force, Netflix is hoping and praying that a Daniels-Carell reunion can replicate The Office’s magic and spark a bingeing frenzy. Because Netflix has a Very Big Problem: The Office, its most-popular licensed program, is leaving the platform at the end of 2020 (as is Parks and Rec, its third most-watched). Last year, NBC outbid Netflix for the broadcast rights, agreeing to pay Universal Television $500 million over five years to bring the show to its own streaming service. Netflix needs a juggernaut to fill the void and is reportedly shelling out $1 million per episode to Carell in its efforts.

For episode one, the trouble is that “now we only have five hours to get the sound right, which is 50 percent of the experience,” explains Daniels (who, as the showrunner, is no doubt making out OK, too). The Nashville orchestra that’s supplying original music for the show hasn’t even sent over recordings yet. Fortunately, Daniels is one of those mutant humans who convert stress into a high-octane fuel. A subtle tension runs beneath his reedy tenor voice at all times, and his back remains taut as he bends over his notepad.

Despite the crunch he’s under, one suspects that he’s like this 98 percent of the time anyway. Maybe it’s the native New Yorker in him: He walks with an unmistakable ready-to-push-through-Penn-Station-at-rush-hour forward tilt. Yet he gives notes in a remarkably casual tone, and he laughs at himself when he can’t decipher his scribbled handwriting. In writers’ rooms, he has been known to lie on the floor and eat peanut-butter sandwiches while mulling problems.

The “Kokomo” scene currently absorbing his attention is quintessential Daniels: to co-opt a cheesy or forgotten scrap of American culture for emotional catharses—like when Dwight Schrute, slumped in a car post-breakup, blares R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.” In this case, General Naird, who seems to subsist entirely on salutes and black coffee, turns to the Beach Boys for comfort in a moment of uncertainty, and he feels “Kokomo,” by God.

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DANIELS HAS SPENT his life perfecting the creation of TV moments such as this. The son of an ABC Radio executive and a New York Public Library manager, he grew up reading humorists such as S. J. Perelman. In college, he landed his first comedy-writing gig at The Harvard Lampoon, where his classmate, and future roommate, Conan O’Brien also worked. Both went on to write for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Daniels met his wife, Susanne Daniels, currently YouTube’s global head of original content, in the lobby of the former. “Greg is smart enough to be running some business where he’s not paying taxes and destroying society with expensive pharmaceutical goods,” says Nick Offerman (Parks and Rec’s Ron Swanson). “That he instead uses his wizardry to make us laugh and to think about decency makes me feel very grateful.”

Each series Daniels has co-created and helmed—The Office, King of the Hill, Parks and Rec—has been proudly provincial, in setting and temperament. He revels in bucolic quirkiness. Take Li’l Sebastian, the tiny horse in Parks and Rec that Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) proudly proclaims was once “the eighth most photographed object in America!” “Real life and ordinary people are very interesting and important,” he tells me during an editing break, while eating Thai food in a tiny conference room. “And 99.9 percent of Hollywood is not that.”

With Space Force, Daniels has set his sights on perhaps his most Americana of subjects: space. “There’s something so all-American and positive about NASA,” he says. “Our greatest moment as a society was putting a man on the moon.” He aimed to incorporate that sense of unity and optimism in Space Force, to ensure that it has “a nice, noble spine.”

“That Greg uses his wizardry to make us laugh, instead of destroying society, makes me grateful.”

Though Daniels created and developed Space Force, the idea for it originated not with him but from within Netflix, after President Trump began proposing the new military branch in 2017. Netflix first broached the idea with Carell, who expressed interest in coming aboard if Daniels would, too. Out of the blue, “I basically got a call,” Daniels says. At the time, there was no premise, no characters, no plot—just a name: Space Force. For Daniels, the prospect of filling in the blanks was exciting, and the ideas came quickly once he got to work.

The show will launch in tandem with the real U.S. Space Force, which Trump signed into law last year, ostensibly to gather intelligence and protect military assets. In January, Space Force the show tweeted out a photo of its fictional fatigues, patterned to resemble a lunar landscape. Which, Daniels points out, “is kind of ridiculous.” What do you need camouflage for on the moon? “And then,” Daniels adds, eyes filling with excitement, “the actual Space Force came out with their own camouflage—and it’s jungle, which is even more ridiculous.”

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For all the pleasures of riffing on such absurdities, Daniels doesn’t intend to make pointed political statements with the show. He appreciates how the Armed Forces ensure that people are cared for and protected, and assures “the treatment of the military on the show is respectful.”

BACK IN THE edit bay, Daniels doesn’t let up on his notes after “Kokomo.” At various points this morning, he asks for more clinks in a gym scene, questions the squeakiness of Carell’s shoes in another, and ponders the filling of a water glass (“should it be faucet on, sip taken, drink down?”) and the whoop-whoop-whoop of helicopter blades (“slow them down?”).

Daniels developed his instincts for such minutiae in the network-sitcom trenches. He’s glad to be jumping into the streaming era now. Netflix has been extra supportive and unafraid to try new ideas, he says. But launching a new show is nerve-racking all the same, especially given the changes TV has undergone. When The Office launched 15 years ago, it was singular on broadcast TV—odd, unflinching, politically incorrect, yet undeniably human. Still, it was a product of the old-school TV machine. And with streaming still nascent, required viewers to tune in each week to watch, which often lent to a strong sense of investment.

Further to The Office’s benefit, it enjoyed 22-plus-episode season orders, whereas Space Force, like many other new comedies, got greenlit for 10. Daniels explains that, with fewer episodes per season, shows can struggle to form deep connections with viewers, who, inundated with content, can easily binge and forget about a series in a weekend.

The Office also resonated with audiences in a way that can’t be engineered and certainly wasn’t expected. The show’s lasting relevance is “shocking, in a great way,” Carell tells me. “The more I get asked about it, the less I know. It’s just a happy little miracle that people found it.” In separate conversations, Daniels and Carell each insist that it’s a joy to be making a series together again, not a pressure cooker. Daniels, for one, tries to ignore outside expectations by focusing on Space Force’s details to an exacting degree, as he has today in the edit bay.

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The pressures on him aren’t limited to TV. He and his wife have four children, and balancing a demanding job with family life requires constant negotiation. For a time, Daniels was showrunning both Parks and Rec and The Office, which meant that he had to lock “every script, every cut, everything” for 50 episodes of TV. During this time, he saw an old interview with Yasser Arafat, in which the Palestinian leader said that he tried to spend 30 minutes a day with his children. “I was like, Ah, shit,” Daniels recalls. “As a dad, I’m not doing as well as Yasser Arafat.

Nowadays, Daniels tries to take one day off a weekend to hang with his daughter who’s in fifth grade. (His other three children are either in college or in the working world.) Because he works so much, household chores do tend to back up. His shower has been broken for more than six months, and he hasn’t found the time to fix it yet. “I have to take baths,” he says. Not that he totally minds: “That’s been my thing. I’ll take a bath and read.” If his shower wasn’t broken, who knows if he’d make time to relax.

In the conference room, Daniels says that, of all the characters he’s created, he “relates heavily” to Dwight Schrute, the paper salesman on The Office who keeps survival tools within reach. Daniels always thinks several steps ahead, trying to anticipate what could go wrong and to figure out solutions. More recently, though, he’s felt a close kinship with General Naird, who’s constantly putting out fires at home and the office. In the scene when Naird sings “Kokomo,” he does so to reassure himself that everything is going to be OK. Yet, dancing by himself, he’s as rigid as ever. It’s an endearing moment: An everyday man who can’t relax, trying to keep himself together in hopes of pulling off something improbable and grand.

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