Rashida Jones Befriends a Robot in Apple TV+ Series 5

Say this for Apple TV+’s originals: They tend to look great, and Sunny, its latest sci-fi dramedy, is no exception. Its Kyoto setting is replete with plush jewel tones and tasteful woods. Its characters are chic in Uniqlo-by-way-of-Her separates. Its robots are rendered in friendly bulbous figures and bright emoji-like expressions. A cool ’60s soundtrack completes the vaguely retro vibe.

But not all of the platform’s offerings feel as rich narratively as they look visually — and unfortunately, that’s true of Sunny too. It’s not a bad time, per se; a twisty mystery, a colorful ensemble and the occasional stylistic big swing keep its ten 30ish-minute episodes moving painlessly enough. It’s just a vaguely disappointing one, better at suggesting emotional and thematic depths than plumbing them.

Sunny

The Bottom Line

A gorgeously designed mixed bag.

Airdate: Wednesday, July 10 (Apple TV+)
Cast: Rashida Jones, Joanna Sotomura, annie the clumsy, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Judy Ongg, You, Jun Kunimura
Creator: Katie Robbins, based on a book by Colin O’Sullivan

Sunny‘s lonely heroine is Suzie (Rashida Jones), who begins the series drowning in grief over the loss of her husband, Masa (Drive My Car‘s Hidetoshi Nishijima), and their young son in a plane crash. If the recent incident has compounded her unhappiness, though, it’s clearly not the only source of it. Although Suzie has lived in Japan for a decade, she speaks only English. The only person she has left in her life is Noriko (Judy Ongg), her disdainful mother-in-law. Her stated excuse is that dyslexia makes it difficult for her to learn Japanese, which in turn makes it difficult for her to meet people. Yet her prickly demeanor suggests she might simply be more comfortable playing the perpetual foreigner, to whom nothing is due and of whom nothing is expected.

Her mourning remains solitary only so long, however. One night, a mysterious gentleman (Jun Kunimura) drops off Sunny (voiced by Joanna Sotomura), a homebot he says Masa had designed specifically for Suzie — to her shock, since she’d had no idea Masa worked in robotics to begin with, and to her displeasure, since she’s long hated robots. Chipper and caring as Sunny seems, Suzie’s mistrust might not be entirely without reason: The series opens with the unsettling sight of a droid beating a man to death. Still, Suzie’s distaste is soon outweighed by her curiosity, as she grows increasingly convinced that Sunny is the key to finding out who her husband really was, what he was really up to and what happened to him.

Creator Katie Robbins (adapting The Dark Manual by Colin O’Sullivan) sends the duo to intriguingly strange corners of Kyoto, from a Severance-esque basement lab to an underground robot fight club, and Sunny‘s greatest charm lies in the oddballs they encounter along the way. You is a scene-stealer as Himé, a platinum-bobbed yakuza first introduced getting a manicure while her henchmen torture a man a few feet away. Annie the clumsy adds a disarming warmth as Mixxy, a younger bartender who becomes fast friends with Suzie over strong drinks and lightly flirty chitchat.

At times, the show’s affected quirk sits oddly against Suzie’s raw misery; Noriko gets a late-season arc that plays more like that of a bored empty-nester than a mother mourning her only child and grandchild. But all of the characters eventually reveal a loneliness to echo Suzie’s — and most, in different ways, come to see Sunny as a salve or a solution.

Meanwhile, with each new clue, Suzie is forced to reconsider the memories of a man she’d previously thought was “just nice.” Sunny‘s flashbacks re-edit themselves with her moods, so that a romantic evening replays as a colder interrogation or a mundane bedtime exchange is revisited in an angrier, more ominous tone. Sometimes, she remembers her husband as the tender spouse and devoted father she knew him to be; at others, she imagines him as the cold-blooded killer she now fears he was. Nijishima wears each version of Masa with equal conviction, so that we, like Suzie, cannot begin to guess the kind of man he truly was.

But if Masa’s unknowability is by design, it also reflects Sunny‘s most fundamental shortcoming: a tendency to keep everyone at arm’s length. In his case, it’s difficult to feel the full weight of Suzie’s loss when we get only the barest glimpses of what their bond was like in life. In Mixxy’s, we learn plenty of fun facts (she has a bald spot on her head! She was raised on a farm by hippies!) but not much about the psychology that inspires her to dive headfirst into a dangerous mission involving a woman she’s just met. Himé’s yakuza power struggles bore when none of the other people involved register as memorable characters anyway.

Even Suzie comes across as a cipher. Jones is excellent at playing Suzie’s dourness, refusing to pretty up the character’s pain or tone down her jagged fury. But other aspects of her personality, like her bossiness, seem to come and go with the needs of the plot.

Meanwhile, Sunny does not have particularly much to say about the possibilities or pitfalls of the futuristic tech at its center. “His goal wasn’t in teaching robots to discover their humanity. It was in how they could help us discover ours,” a man says of a brilliant roboticist he once knew. The series, likewise, is mostly interested in Sunny as a tool for bringing people together or turning them against each other — such that even an episode set entirely in the recesses of her mind (styled, audaciously, as a garish and goofy game show) revolves entirely around Sunny’s utility or harm to the people around her.

Not every sci-fi mystery needs to be Blade Runner, of course, just as not every dramedy needs to be an intimate character study. But if Sunny represents a heretofore unseen frontier of the bond between woman and machine, Sunny is more equivalent to a sleek new gadget that might look cool on your desk, but doesn’t quite live up to the potential you imagined when you brought it home.

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