‘Sunny’ Review: Rashida Jones Stumbles Through Apple’s Overstuffed Sci-fi Dramedy

On shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” the great strength of Rashida Jones has been her plainspoken relatability. Despite her glamorous lineage as the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton, Jones blends in with ensembles built for everyday quirks rather than large-scale gestures; on those NBC sitcoms, for example, her unfussy delivery style enhanced both the reality and the comedy of her scenes.

Jones tested herself a bit more as a leading lady in the Sofia Coppola movie “On the Rocks,” but her lower-key take on gilded-cage ennui wound up a comfortable fit for what was itself a lower-key Coppola picture of more modest moods and less spiritual distress. In the new Apple TV+ series “Sunny,” however, Jones must access a greater range of emotions — even when they’re supposed to be partially concealed. As Suzie, a woman living in near-future Japan whose husband Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and young son are presumed dead after a horrific plane crash, she needs to convey grief over that potential loss, anger at its unfairness, exasperation (bordering on disgust) at being stuck with her judgmental mother-in-law Noriko (Judy Ongg), and a nagging suspicion that information is being kept from her, among other complexities.

It’s not necessarily that Jones lets “Sunny” down with her acting. All of those requisite emotions do come across — at times, almost too clearly. In a multifaceted show with a tricky tone, her directness should be a guiding light for the audience, but Jones seems to have trouble squaring those complicated, conflicting feelings with Suzie’s self-presentation, as well as making those inner conflicts surprising or counterintuitive. So instead she sticks to the surface: Scowling, swearing and occasionally sobbing. She’s not exactly overacting; it’s more like emotional exposition.

Some of this, of course, is really a problem in the writing of “Sunny.” It’s based on the novel “The Dark Manual” by Colin O’Sullivan, and some details (whether in the book or invented for the show) have been brought to life with great skill by series creator Katie Robbins and her staff. On paper, it seems like one of its most challenging elements would be Sunny (Joanna Sotomura), the advanced domestic robot that Masa leaves to Suzie. This wish confounds Suzy, given that she has always expressed revulsion at the concept, and throws her further as she realizes what a complex not-quite-person Sunny appears to be.

Roughly the height of a tween but with bulkier proportions, Sunny’s version of a robotic demeanor (at least as we initially see it) is less ultra-efficient automaton than slightly frantic people-pleaser with big cartoony eyes — which only makes her more unnerving (and funnier; it’s the rare original re-interpretation of the servile-robot dynamic). Both the visual effects and the personality are surprisingly believable as Sunny wears down Suzie’s resistance and becomes her sidekick of sorts — though she has to compete with bartender Mixxy (the singer-songwriter known as annie the clumsy), a new human friend Suzie meets (and maybe flirts with?) in the aftermath of her family’s disappearance.

The trio gets deeper into an investigation that involves hacked robots, secrets Masa kept from his wife, and possible business involving the Yakuza. Along the way, some of the quirkier details feel like the show is using its futuristic surface to get away with a bunch of tired isn’t-Japan-weird material. That might just come down to “Sunny” missing the mark when it’s aiming for dark comedy. For every intriguing plot turn or bit of clever irony, there’s a scene that really clangs, like a midseries police interview that’s played as comic absurdity but is actually just a bunch of unbelievable behavior. Suzie describes a missing robot without mentioning that she’s talking about a robot, then issues sarcastic quips that depend entirely on the police detective supplying information to fuel them.

annie the clumsy (left), Sunny and Rashida Jones in “Sunny.” (Apple TV+)

“Sunny” often looks great, perpetuating Apple’s rep as a go-to streamer for well-appointed sci-fi. Its sense of design isn’t ostentatious; though some character dynamics recall Spielberg’s “A.I.,” it’s scaled closer to the smaller, more retro-futuristic style of Spike Jonze’s “Her.” But for much of its ten episodes, the show, like Suzie, is doing a lot — prickly, uneasy buddy comedy; big sci-fi ideas about artificial intelligence; messy grief drama; crime intrigue; amateur private-detective work – and not doing any of it especially well. It’s the kind of show that insists on having its lead character’s flaws conspicuously called out around the three-quarters mark, lest the audience misunderstand whether Suzie is meant to be a good person, and winds up coming across more like a lampshading of the show’s more unconvincing human elements.

A late-season backstory episode about the art of robotics programming is a welcome change of pace, yet has to carry so much weight in 37 minutes that it throws the material around it out of whack. The season as a whole is at once drawn-out and overstuffed. Like Jones, “Sunny” has admirable ambition – and doesn’t seem entirely prepared to follow it through.

“Sunny” premieres Wednesday, July 10, on Apple TV+.

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