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Rashida Jones delivers a brilliant performance in “Sunny”

Rashida Jones delivers a brilliant performance in “Sunny”

Some shows leave a bad taste in your mouth.

That’s a weird way to talk about atmosphere, I realize—or style, or narrative weight—but it strikes me every time the mood of a particular series dominates my days long after I’ve forgotten a plot twist or a major plot twist. “Sunny,” creator Katie Robbins’ shiny new show for Apple TV Plus, which stars Rashida Jones alongside a 3-foot-tall robot, didn’t seem to be joining their ranks. The show looks dark, creepy and entertaining in previews, but it’s also a little forgettable. The robot the series is named after (voice: Joanna Sotomura) says everything too cheerfully. The bad girl Hime (played by You) is amusing but decidedly cartoonish. The action sequences seem standard fare. But this dark comedy about technology and loneliness – disguised as a thriller about a helpful “homebot” with murderous potential, the Yakuza mobster (of course) using hope — got under my skin and stayed there.

Set in Kyoto, “Sunny” follows an American expatriate and misanthropist named Suzie Sakamoto (Rashida Jones) as she bristles at the deaths of her husband and son in a plane crash. Jones plays Suzie as reflexively unpleasant, even in her grief. Impatient, vulgar and brash, she never learned Japanese, but still manages to trade barbs with various Japanese officials thanks to an in-ear translation device. Her clashes with her reserved and frosty mother-in-law Noriko (Judy Ongg) rarely escalate into actual conflict. Ongg and Jones conjure a whole world (and a delicate shared past) out of their usual, tension-free hostility through their grounded performances that sometimes come across as a realism bordering on mumblecore. The understated, familiar, monotonous, low-brow tenor of their antagonism elevates both; paradoxically, their understated unkindness makes each of them individually more likable. This detailed character work goes a long way toward anchoring and balancing the overall formulaic silliness of the thriller’s plot.

“Sunny” begins with Noriko urging Suzie to engage in a collective mourning exercise for the families of those who died in the crash. Everyone calls the phone of a deceased loved one to listen to their outgoing voicemail message and mourn because they will hear it for the last time. When Suzie finally gives in and dials, her husband Masa’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) phone, which should be turned off, rings incessantly. The thriller really picks up speed when a man claiming to have worked with Masa shows up at her door with a consolation gift from his employer, a company called ImaTech. The gift is a domestic “homebot” named Sunny, which Masa claims to have programmed himself for Suzie.

Suzie hates homebots. She also believed – because he told her so during their ten years together – that Masa worked on refrigerators, not robots. So this is the mystery Suzie must solve, while Sunny ingratiates herself into her owner’s (and the viewers’) good graces through helpfulness, gentle questions and bouts of benevolent disobedience. Suzie is aided in her investigation by Mixxy (Annie the Clumsy), a bartender who alerts her to a thriving black market for bits of code that people buy to hack homebots and give them other functions. Suzie and Sunny are monitored by Hime, the ambitious daughter of an ailing yakuza leader. She is soft-spoken, delightfully creepy and she is desperate to get a definitive hacker’s manual for homebots, known as “The Dark Manual.” (This is also the name of the Colin O’Sullivan novel on which “Sunny” is based.) Using this code, which Masa apparently helped create, Hime hopes to outsource executions, consolidate her power, and assume power when her father dies.

But the real story of the series isn’t the Homebot, the code that could be used to hack it, or Sunny’s growing consciousness, which is competently (and sometimes movingly) portrayed. The heart of the series is more modest, peppered with deceptively simple questions. such as, “Why did my father hate me?” (Another one that a character poses as a programming challenge is teaching a robot the difference between “garbage” and “not garbage.”)

Suzie’s grief over the loss of her family is compounded by her realization that she may not have known the only person (other than her son) with whom she had formed a meaningful connection. The show is about her fear of what ugly things she might find out about him, and her growing fear that she may be mourning something that never existed—and that she may have lost her son. That question—”What did I miss?” with all its bitter loneliness—is the show’s driving tension. And “Sunny” is not “Big Little Lies” or “The Undoing,” where the answer identifies and resolves a monster. Rather, the opposite is true: As the thriller’s plot becomes punchier and more predictable, the show gives less thought to what went wrong or was left unsaid between Masa and Suzie. More tender. More precise.

“Sunny” will undoubtedly Compare to “Lost in Translation,” Sofia Coppola’s 2003 treatise on American loneliness in Japan. And to Apple TV Plus’ “Severance,” which also uses a bit of self-effacing futurism to interrogate grief and separation. But the more relevant counterpart to “Sunny” is probably “Eric,” the recently released Netflix series in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays the host of a popular children’s show whose son disappears. Both series make their grieving protagonist unsympathetic. Both equip the parent in his search for answers with a therapeutic but lifeless companion (a giant doll in “Eric,” a robot in “Sunny”). Both are technically thrillers, ensnared by a fake and only semi-coherent organized crime story. Both treat their missing boys as beautiful but largely symbolic ciphers. Both are named after their main gimmick, and both build to a highly predictable, over-telegraphed twist.

But “Sunny” succeeds where “Eric” fails. Where the latter failed in an admirable but poorly executed attempt to wrap racism (and the AIDS epidemic and homophobia and societal corruption in 1980s New York) into a fable about mental illness, narcissism, gentrification and addiction, “Sunny” is restrained and focused. Its themes are few. Its world is stripped down. The show’s version of Japan — aside from one memorable episode parodying Japanese TV — is mundane rather than exotic. Even its futurism is curated and restrained. The homebots are charmingly simple, with virtually no buttons. The devices people use in place of cellphones are only a little alien, and in a homey, analog way. (Instead of screens, they are small projectors.) Although both shows feature great performances given the (extremely difficult) circumstances, Jones’ calm, precise, and matter-of-fact work opposite the robot gives her scenes the virtuoso precision of a skilled miniaturist.

So, given the silly cliffhanger that ends the first season, I’m worried that the show isn’t playing to its strengths. That doesn’t include “realistic action sequences” or a tight plot. But I’ll binge the second season when it comes, because I’m dying to see more of the proud, irritable, haunting, oddly relatable world the show builds around Suzie, Noriko, and Mixxy. If it’s lightened up by a few theories about artificial intelligence and a few over-the-top yakuza scenes, so much the better.

Sunny (10 episodes) starts on July 10th with two episodes on Apple TV Plus. The remaining episodes will be broadcast weekly.