Sunnyside has a promising and unusual premise, but its insight feels lacking and its humor only rarely lands.
This recap of Sunnyside Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”, and Season 1, Episode 2, “The Ethiopian Executioner”, contains spoilers.
So, here’s a show that I wish was funnier and worked better since the premise — a disgraced New York City councilman finds renewed purpose tutoring a bunch of undocumented immigrants — deserves some attention. So, too, does the involvement of Kal Penn, both in front of and behind the camera, putting his real-life experience in President Barack Obama’s administration to work on an NBC sitcom that — a bit like CBS’s Bob Hearts Abishola — wants to really examine the American immigrant experience.
The problem is that it lacks insight and isn’t as funny as it thinks it is, though its reception so far suggests I might be the only person who thinks so. Either way, its thin pilot and bizarre mistaken-identity follow-up don’t inspire much confidence, even if the cast is great and there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Penn plays Garrett Modi, former representative of Sunnyside, Queens, a diverse neighbor that he failed to serve politically. After being drummed out of office after a drunken scandal, he finds himself living with his sister Mallory (Kiran Deol) and virtually penniless. Out of desperation, he tries to w***e his notoriety and ends up becoming a tutor to a group of undocumented immigrants who’re trying to pass their citizenship test. Cue shenanigans and moral lessons, most of which should have been obvious anyway, such as perhaps don’t use your uber-wealthy friends for their money.
The group’s fun, though, and stocked with capable actors. Griselda (Diana-Maria Riva) is a Dominican with so many jobs that her popping up everywhere the rest of the group goes becomes a running gag. Brady (Moses Storm) has been in America since he was two years old, but his mother was a Moldovan immigrant who outstayed her visa, which means he’s technically from Moldova, even though he can’t even find it on a map. Siblings Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster) and Mei Lin (Poppy Liu) are from some unspecified Asian country and have preposterous wealth and influence thanks to their Bond villain father, details of whom are also kept very vague. And Hakim (Samba Schutte) is an Ethiopian cardiothoracic surgeon forced to drive cabs.
This is all good, fertile stuff, but apart from a second episode which finds Hakim mistaken for a serial killer while embroiled in a legal scam, Sunnyside seems more interested in Penn’s Modi, who never seems to actually exhibit any of the smooth-talking qualities that the script insists he has. He mostly seems a bit of a buffoon, and jokes try and match him at that low level more often than not. Only rarely did I chuckle throughout the first two episodes, and not once did I feel the show was doing anything of genuine note with its hot-button premise, which is kind of a problem for a show which is intended to be both funny and insightful. There’s plenty of potential here and the talent to do something with it, but at first glance, this is a disappointingly tame slog.