One classic TV sitcom setup is when a disparate, diverse group of people come together over the very flimsiest of reasons. Community is the ur-example of this, and Sunnyside seems eager to follow in its footsteps, albeit in a much more realistic way. The show is about Garrett Modi (Kal Penn), a disgraced Queens city councilor who works with a group of immigrants to help them become American citizens in a scheme to get re-elected. Sunnyside has a lot going for it: It feels very timely given the immigration crisis, though becoming a naturalized citizen has always been full of bureaucratic bullshit. There’s also its pedigree. One of the creators is Matt Murray, a producer for Community, Parks And Recreation, and The Good Place. It’s executive-produced by Michael Schur, who previously wrung tons of drama out of a city council—the races, the politics, the re-election schemes!—on Parks And Rec. It also happens to be a starring vehicle for series co-creator Kal Penn, co-star of the Harold And Kumar movies, and as a former member of the Obama administration, someone with political bona fides.
Despite that onscreen and offscreen talent, Sunnyside arrives undercooked. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of charm and wit; one of the great things about an ensemble show, and the convoluted way they come together, is that there’s lots of room for surprise. Garrett Modi (Penn) loses a local election to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lookalike Diana Brea (Ana Villafañe). Modi’s election loss is partially attributed to years of partying over making policy, but the dealbreaker seems to be a viral video of him drunkenly trying to bribe a cop. It’s cartoonish and over-the-top, while simultaneously being pretty tame compared to the bad behavior of many real-life politicians these days. It’s not overtly funny, but Garrett’s decision to begin his re-election “campaign” by earning money from people who want to meet him after he acted like an idiot, is. That’s how he meets the study group—er, the people studying to become citizens.
None of the other players gets enough to do in the pilot, which is a shame. These shows are only as good as their ensemble, and the one thing Community pulled off in its pilot that its contemporaries too often omit is giving real introductions for each character. But there are enough quirks among them to invite further viewing: Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster) and Mei Lin (Poppy Liu) have glimmers of being delightfully snobby rich people (who pay Garrett enough to stick around). Kim Booster’s stand-up is the main reason to be hopeful about these characters becoming more fun to watch in any episode that’s not a pilot. Hakim (Samba Schutte) is in a classic “doctor in my country, cab driver in the U.S.” immigrant story, but, again, he barely gets to show any personality. The beyond industrious Griselda (Diana-Maria Riva) has the best gag on the show so far—she has all the jobs, all the time. In the pilot, she works as a mail carrier, server, librarian, ballpark food vendor, and apparently, an Apple Genius.
Brady (Moses Storm, another stand-up gem) is a unique example among the others in that he was brought over from Moldova at age 2 and didn’t realize he wasn’t a citizen. He spends most of the episode annoyed by fellow Moldovan Drazen (Tudor Petrut), who insists they are brothers. Drazen is adorable, like a kind but silly uncle, putting too much relish on his hot dog and playing his music at random moments, and it’s very upsetting when he gets taken by ICE.
Which brings us to the least effective member of this group: Penn as Garrett. Penn’s tenure in the Obama White House provides an interesting meta element to the series’ political bent. But shows like Community and the bands of misfits they center on are usually able to rally around the main character, who is almost always a jerk—albeit a really charming one who starts to temper his nonstop bullshit and open up emotionally, which leads him to a freakout and maybe even tears. Although everyone from Garrett’s sister, Mallory (Kiran Deol, another delightful surprise), to Griselda insists that Garrett is a convincing, charismatic talker, those traits don’t really translate. Garrett does give a few speeches, but they’re the weakest part of the show, especially compared to how Community’s Joel McHale easily mixed sarcasm and sincerity in his lectures. Instead, Penn is goofy where he should be smarmy, and when he does sell the jerk element, it’s a little gross instead of funny. He (and the show) strain the most at these times; Penn’s best moments are when he steps back and reacts to the ensemble, especially because he has a natural warmth that comes across easily, like when he banters with his sister.
As has increasingly become the case, only the pilot was available for review, so it’s hard to gauge how Sunnyside will grow. If it leans too hard on Garrett’s supposed shtick, the show might drag, leaving little chance for survival. But the rest of the ensemble has a lot of potential—Kim Booster, Storm, Riva, and Deol in particular—and if the show focuses on them more, it could really have something special. If Sunnyside leans into spontaneity and surprises—just as Community quickly turned away from Britta and Jeff to focus on the most chemistry-laden couple on the show, Troy and Abed—then it could evolve into a show worth sticking with.