NBC’s new comedy Sunnyside, on paper, should be a delight. It’s got producers linked to comedic gems like Community, Parks and Rec, and The Good Place. It’s stars Kal Penn, who also cocreated the show, as a disgraced politician who decided to turn over a new leaf and help a rag tag group of immigrants get their citizenship. It’s got a formula that often works. There is talented ensemble of people both behind and in front of the camera, an optimistic bent, with just enough cynicism, and a lead who, presumably, learns how to become a better person after being stuck in a self absorbed rut.
Unfortunately, that part about the lead is where Sunnyside most decidedly falls short. Cheering for a self absorbed, smart, and a soon to be likable lead worked great on Community and Brooklyn 99. But Kal only comes across overly selfish, occasionally redeemable, and frankly not very smart. It’s hard to believe he even got elected. I’m not sure if this is on Kal Penn or the writing. Maybe casting oneself as a charming but selfish lead is just too indulgent. So much of the time, you kinda want to punch his character, Garrett. He swindles thousands from the hopeful citizens, which he pays back, but it's still a big gross moment. He constantly bums off his sister and tells stories about himself that I think we are supposed to find funny, but just make him seem less likable. During his tutoring sessions for the citizenship exam, he is constantly bringing in irrelevant information presumably because he finds that more interesting. It’s hard to root for him.
There are few other weak points, actress Diana Maria Riva deserves way better than the one joke they give her for the first two episodes (which is that she has a million jobs). Many ensemble comedies struggle to flesh out their characters in the first few episodes, but this one aggressively draws on caricatures and stereotypes. We are given little unique or interesting info about any characters until episode three, Dr Potato. This was by far the best of the episodes thus far and the first one that caused me to actually laugh out loud.
Still, I want to root for Sunnyside. Thus far it's been as disappointing as its lead character. Like Garret, it looks good on paper. I can remember not being too impressed with Parks and Rec at first, and finding its lead Leslie Knope to be somewhat hard to like as well. But I gave it a fair shake because I loved the team around it.. I’m trying to stick it out for Sunnyside too, because I believe in the concept. And I’m optimistic that way. But then again, maybe that’s the behavior of some wide eyed idealist I’d try not to judge for still rooting for a formerly beloved politician even though they’ve failed enough. But, at least for now I guess I can give Sunnyside one more shot. Who knows, maybe I’ll laugh out loud three times the next episode.
Strange Perspective is a unique weekly look into today's pop culture by Progress columnist Rachel Strange.