Watch Rashida Jones’ Tech Thriller Sunny for the Characters, Not the Cliffhangers

5 minute read

The idea of trusting artificial intelligence might seem self-evidently foolish given its many notorious perils, from generative A.I. “hallucinating” false information to the “extinction-level” risk that a recent government report concluded the technology poses to the human race. But what if an A.I. happened to be the only thing in your life that you could so much as consider trusting? That is the core dilemma of Sunny, a timely, thoughtful, attractively made but frustratingly paced and plotted combination of dramedy and tech thriller that premieres July 10 on Apple TV+.

Based on Colin O’Sullivan’s 2018 novel The Dark Manual, the series casts Rashida Jones wonderfully against sitcom-friendly type as Suzie Sakamoto, an American woman living in Kyoto whose husband and son have gone missing after their plane crashed. What seems at first to be situational gloom turns out to be a heightened version of Suzie’s natural pained, prickly, loner state. It doesn’t help when a colleague of her husband, Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima), bestows upon her a curious bereavement gift: a cheerful robot named Sunny that Masa apparently designed just for her. Which is strange, because as far as Suzie knows, he made refrigerators.

Hidetoshi Nishijima in SunnyApple TV+

The revelation that Masa, her only confidant, was not exactly who he claimed to be, combined with the arrival of the so-called homebot (voiced by Joanna Sotomura), whose early attempts to care for her Suzie gruffly rejects, catalyzes a search for the truth that will challenge her extreme introversion. Could Masa’s secret robotics career have something to do with his disappearance? Might he and their little boy, Zen (Fares Belkheir), still be alive somewhere? Suzie doesn’t have the best relationship with the only person in her orbit who might have some insight to share, Masa’s mother, Noriko (Judy Ongg)—she just knows Noriko is acting pretty strange. So when Suzie finally makes a friend, a wild, blue-haired bartender named Mixxy (singer-songwriter annie the clumsy), it’s the two women and Sunny, the sweet A.I. gal pal Suzie is grudgingly coming to rely on, against forces whose power and ruthlessness this trio can’t begin to fathom.

Sunny is at its best when working in dramedy mode. Suzie’s loneliness, before she had Masa and Zen as well as after she loses them, is the emotional throughline. In a flashback to the night Suzie and Masa first met, she admits that she came to Japan post-heartbreak, in part, out of an identification with hikikomori—individuals who withdraw from society, isolating for months or years at a time. He reveals that he was a hikikomori once (though it will be several more episodes before the show fleshes out that story). “Relationships are mess,” Suzie laments. “I know about trying to fight pain and mess,” Masa replies. “But do we have to do it alone?”

Rashida Jones in SunnyApple TV+

His words resonate in the present. Suzie’s quest forces her out of her gorgeous home, where she must find a way to communicate with people outside her nuclear family, despite her grumpy affect and a language barrier she blames on her dyslexia. She also has to trust her new friends—one human, one robot, each suspicious of the other’s motives—to help her get the answers she needs. The question of whether Sunny could truly have Suzie’s welfare at heart (or artificial approximation of same) remains especially haunting in light of the premiere episode’s mysterious opening scene, in which a Sunny-lookalike bot beats a man to death with a chair. 

The series is less satisfying as a tech thriller. A generic yakuza subplot emerges, with deputies battling to succeed an aging leader. A sordid tech underground, where “code dealers” modify bots to perform illicit deeds, looks intriguing but is left largely unexplored. Episodes begin with dramatic, Breaking Bad-style cold opens and end on cliffhangers but often drift sluggishly between the two. The season’s pace, such a crucial element for a thriller, feels off. Sunny starts out too slow; then, just as Suzie’s story gets moving, the eighth and ninth out of 10 episodes divert us to other characters’ perspectives. Diversions can be an effective way of building suspense, but in this case, two consecutive episodes’ worth of them kill the momentum.

Maybe the trouble is that creator, showrunner, and executive producer Katie Robbins (The Affair) has had to conserve plot for a potential second season set up by a predictable finale twist. Or maybe Sunny’s production company, A24—which combined ambitious ideas, rich characters, genre tropes, and striking visuals more effectively in shows such as BEEF and The Sympathizer as well as movies like Everything Everywhere All at Once, After Yang, and I Saw the TV Glow—is starting to see its formula deliver diminishing returns. Happily, Jones (also an executive producer) gives a performance that’s worth watching on its own merits, as she locates the vulnerability within Suzie’s flatness and channels her Parks and Rec charm into making a grouchy heroine lovable. Together, Suzie, Mixxy, and Sunny have a cautious camaraderie that’s unique among TV’s many studies of female friendship—and not just because one of them is a robot. If viewers come back for Season 2, it will be thanks to the characters, not the cliffhangers.

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