Apple’s Sunny is a grief-stricken crime dramedy with a smile on its face

July 9, 2024
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More than yet another sci-fi parable about a future plagued by dangerous robots, Colin O’Sullivan’s 2018 novel The Dark Manual was a lyrical meditation on grieving and the emotions we project onto everyday objects. The book’s premise, prose, and thematic ambivalence about artificially intelligent machines made it feel like the kind of story that could only be adapted as a grim drama. But Apple TV Plus and A24’s Sunny brings a new depth and nuance to O’Sullivan’s story by tempering it with healthy doses of whimsy and animatronic puppetry.

Similar to The Dark Manual (which seems to have been recently retitled in anticipation of Apple’s new show), Sunny revolves around Suzie Sakamoto (Rashida Jones), a woman trying to piece her life together following a plane crash that (seemingly) killed her husband Masa (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and their young son Zen (Fares Belkheir).

As an American transplant with a limited ability to pick up languages or make new friends, grieving in a near-future Japan is a disconcerting experience for Suzie. Even with her overbearing mother-in-law Noriko (Judy Ongg) constantly at her door, and everyone being connected by their Devices — pillow-like smart gadgets that feel inspired by It Follows’ shell phone — Suzie’s loss leaves her spiraling into a profound loneliness. But as painful as it is living in a house full of memories, what unnerves Suzie most is the unexpected arrival of a domestic homecare robot called Sunny (Joanna Sotomura), who insists that Masa programmed her specifically for the mourning widow before the crash.

There’s a pronounced sense of dread running through O’Sullivan’s novel that makes its homebot-filled world feel like a cold, dark place, where the drumbeat of technological progress has convinced many to embrace machines they don’t entirely understand. Jones brings some of that energy to her witheringly acerbic Suzie who, like her book counterpart, does not initially trust Sunny and lashes out at the homebot as it begins taking care of chores. 

But unlike The Dark Manual’s mechanical servants with their unblinking sensors that shift from a menacing shade of scarlet to blue as they process information, all of Sunny’s robots are presented as smiling, friend-shaped beings whose cartoony designs are reflections of a larger shift toward aesthetically playful technology.

Had Sunny been created entirely out of CGI, the energy between Sotomura and Jones might not play so dynamically as the homebot and her owner snipe at each other in the show’s first few episodes. But because Sunny is an animatronic puppet whose animated facial expressions were real-time recreations of Sotomura’s, there’s a realness to their interactions that makes them both feel like weightier (in the narrative sense) characters as a result. 

Through Sunny and Suzie’s caregiver / caretaker relationship, Sunny taps into something very real about how societies turn to technology to deal with personal and communal issues. And yet the silliness of Sunny being a googly-eyed puppet who we never see (but presumably can) go up stairs is a huge part of how the show also manages to work as a comedy that’s really about its two leads trying to solve a pulpy mystery.

While few of Sunny’s twists and turns are entirely novel, the show’s commitment to making its world feel like a plausible vision of a future where people’s gadgets work to address their needs is fantastic. In place of the book’s allusions to tensions with North Korea, Sunny puts more emphasis on yakuza boss Hime (You) and the shadowy community of people illegally jailbreaking homebots to perform functions they’re not technically supposed to be able to do. 

Some of Sunny’s most fascinating worldbuilding comes by way of its villains and their fixation with the fabled Dark Manual key to turn homebots into murder machines. But as Suzie and Sunny’s intrigue pulls them deeper into Japan’s underworld, you can feel Apple setting Sunny up to continue growing beyond its first season in a way that seems like it could lead to too much of a good thing.

Sunny also stars annie the clumsy, Jun Kunimura, and Shin Shimizu. The show’s first two episodes hit Apple TV Plus on July 10th.

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