Sunny led by a compelling Rashida Jones shines in its focus on personal relationships

Sunny led by a compelling Rashida Jones shines in its focus on personal relationships

Rashida Jones is the embodiment of what might once have been called a Renaissance woman, but these days more often gets dubbed a multihyphenate. She’s best known as an actor—as a straight-woman in projects like the beloved Parks and Recreation and Angie Tribeca, a recurring guest on comedy series from Key and Peele to Kroll Show to Portlandia, a voice actor on Inside Out and The Simpsons, and roles in more dramatic projects like Silo and The Social Network. But she has also made a career behind the camera, as a producer (The Other Black Girl, Claws), director (Quincy, the Grammy-winning doc about her father, music producer Quincy Jones), and writer (Celeste & Jesse Forever, Black Mirror).

In Sunny, the new Apple TV+ dark sci-fi dramedy she produced and stars in, she gets to do a few things that even she hasn’t done before. For one, she acts opposite a robot, the titular Sunny, who possesses, as her name suggests, the kind of “Hey girl!” pep that Jones’ misanthropic Suzie can hardly tolerate. For another, she’s working in two languages, as the tech-thriller mystery of Sunny’s genesis—the homebot appears as a consolation gift following the disappearance of Suzie’s family in a mysterious aviation incident—unfolds across the brightly lit neon nights of Kyoto.

Even as the series is focused on our relationships to technology, it also explores the very human experience of grief, a theme which particularly appealed to Jones in the wake of losing her own mother, the model and actor Peggy Lipton, in 2019. Playing against type, as TIME’s TV critic Judy Berman writes, Jones gives “a performance that’s worth watching on its own merits, as she locates the vulnerability within Suzie’s flatness and channels her Parks and Rec charm into making a grouchy heroine lovable.”

In the lead-up to Sunny’s release on July 10, Jones spoke to TIME about channeling her own experiences with grief, how Sunny compared to Kermit the Frog as a scene partner, and whether she’d ever return for more Parks and Rec.

Rashida Jones in SunnyApple TV+TIME: In Sunny, you play an American woman in Kyoto, reluctantly bonding with a “homebot” gifted to her by her husband’s company after he and their son disappear following a plane crash. What about grief were you hoping to explore in this story?

Jones: When you grieve, there is this sense that there’s so much left unsaid. There’s regret and confusion, this lens looking backwards at your entire relationship. Even if it’s not your husband who you’re concerned might be involved in some dark sh-t. There is something that felt really visceral and true to me, because I lost my mom a couple years ago, and it was the most complex emotional experience I’ve ever had. I had a baby, and then seven months later, my mom passed away. I had this combination that’s like in the show, of this intense love of family, and then the shock of the reality that your life has changed so much. There’s the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, but it’s not cyclical. It’s not linear. It’s just chaotic.

Was the parallel cathartic, or do you draw a line between your experience and the character you’re playing?

I’m not the kind of actor who’s like, “I want to go and leave it all on the field.” But I think there is something I wanted to process, or else I wouldn’t have picked it. It’s not the easiest thing to show up every day and scream and cry and have to access that place in real time. Like, maybe today is not the day you want to feel that feeling. But there was probably something in me that wanted to sit in it a little bit more.

What drew you to this project?

I wasn’t aware of the book. And this show kind of strays from the book. So my first exposure was a script and an absolutely beautiful deck and a playlist. The world was so well imagined already, this retro futuristic thing where a lot of the music was ‘50s and ‘60s American-style music, sung in Japanese. The look of the show, the primary colors, the glowing lights of night in Kyoto. I was attracted to the new challenge of playing someone who is so immediately in grief and shock. I really liked that Suzie was unlike me in some ways. She feels a bit isolated in her own life. Just to have the opportunity to bring all of that pathos into a mystery was really appealing.

It’s a very human story, but the themes around our relationships to technology are very timely. Your character can’t trust the intentions of Sunny, her robot. What is your relationship to technology? Are the robots out to kill us?

With so many innovations in the past, there was a sense of ownership, a person using a tool. I don’t think anybody thought the printing press was going to become sentient. I’ve always had a little bit of a nihilistic idea of the world since I was a kid. For all of humanity, as soon as our needs were met, we tried to figure out why we’re here, why we’re special. We can’t figure it out, so we’ve gone so far as creating something that’s so much like us that it might kill us, to see if we can figure out what makes us human. It’s such a weird Greek tragedy.

Sunny the robot, alongside Jones as SuzieCourtesy of Apple TV+You’ve acted opposite Muppets. What was it like acting opposite a robot?

It was definitely challenging. Joanna Sotomura, who plays Sunny, is a wonderful actress, and she was in a tent off-set with a helmet on with a super bright light shining in her eyes, and the camera would pick up her expressions and then translate them into the very lo-fi Sunny face. It took so many people to make the robot move and have articulate digits. But when we actually got to act with Joanna on Sunny’s screen, that felt pretty real, pretty fast. I felt that way on The Muppets movie—on the second day, I wasn’t even talking to Steve [Whitmire], who plays Kermit. I was just having full, off-camera conversations with Kermit. It doesn’t take much.

Not only are you acting opposite a robot, but the show is in two languages. Suzie has this earpiece that can instantly facilitate communication, but it’s also a crutch, because she doesn’t have to learn the language, which further alienates her.

It was very different from anything I’ve experienced. The actual earpiece is not functional. So I had that and another earpiece in my other ear with the translation. So both my ears were occupied, and then sometimes the earpiece wouldn’t work. I don’t speak Japanese, so I would just have to listen to the rhythm of the scene and really watch the actor and respond in a language that I didn’t understand. Suzie is isolated, a bit of a misanthrope, and she moves to another country, in a way, to not have to talk to people. So, yes, it’s an absolute crutch, and she’s been able to check out culturally, which is kind of lazy, and then she gets thrown into this thing where she has to interface with all these people. And so it’s a little bit like her worst nightmare.

You’ve directed, produced, written, acted in every genre, worked in podcasting and animation. Is there a place where you feel creatively most at home?

When I get to write with [writing partner] Will McCormack, immediately it feels like home, because we’ve been friends for 25 years. It’s like the coziest couch that ever was. We just speak the same language and love each other and it’s really fun and funny. The last couple things I’ve done have not felt like home, and I purposely pushed myself. I also feel very at home sitting at the monitor, whether in a writing or producing or directing capacity, and seeing the thing come to life. You know when something doesn’t quite work. And when an actor really has a great moment, you’re there to see it.

In this age of reboots, is there a project you would want to revisit?

Actually, three. Parks and Recreation was the best job that ever was. We’re still super close, and everybody would be so excited—it just has to be right, and has to come from Mike [Schur] and Amy [Poehler]. Any time, any day, you name it, I’d be there. I Love You, Man was so much fun. We talked for a while about trying to imagine [coming back to it], but we might just be too old now. People might not care. I still say totes McGotes sometimes…It was on tote bags! There were so many classic lines, we spent so much time improv-ing that movie. And then, Celeste & Jesse Forever. Will and I have talked about some sort of spiritual sequel because it defined an era of relationship, and now we’re in a different era we have a lot to say about—kids, marriage, staring down the barrel of your back half. Sequels get a bad rap, but they really do justify their existence sometimes. It’s a great joy. All you’re trying to do as a writer is get to know the characters, and you never have enough time.

As a professional reviewer of television I am regularly asked “What should I watch?” — a question I answer with the question, “Well, what do you like?” One can discuss the quality, the technique, the structure of a series in a relatively objective, analytical way, but taste is a matter of … taste. Some celebrated series that attract awards like a magnet does iron filings, while I might praise their craft and artfulness, are just not my thing. I might find them admirable yet not exciting. Every critic knows the feeling.

Indeed, were I to catalog my favorite series over the years since I started thinking seriously about television, it would be heavy on single-season flops, offbeat comedies, strange children’s shows and lo-fi art projects. (I will make you that list sometime, but you will surely find “Food Party” on it.) It would favor the light and lovely over the dark and gritty, and stories of ordinary folks over the rich and powerful — people who make things rather than just own things, lovers not schemers.

Currently, I am in love with “Land of Women,” a dramatic-romantic family comedy starring Eva Longoria and Carmen Maura (la reina de las películas de Pedro Almodóvar), premiering Wednesday on Apple TV+. I find it thrilling not so much for its plot — which is, indeed, a little bit of a thriller and doesn’t always make real-word sense — but for its luminous cast, and the humble splendor of its setting, a village in the mountains northeast of Barcelona. (I am, admittedly, a sucker for Spain.) It’s the sort of story whose constituent parts have been shuffled many times over the years, as often as not with middling results — but when done well, as in Hollywood’s golden age, and here, can stay fresh for decades.

Gala (Eva Longoria), left, is a wealthy New Yorker who escapes to Spain with her mother Julia (Carmen Maura) and daughter Kate in tow. (Apple TV+)

Longoria plays Gala, a wealthy New Yorker opening a super-fancy wine shop. Significantly, she doesn’t come from money, but she has adopted the coloration of present environment, where she thinks nothing of buying three copies of a couture dress without asking the price.

The money comes from her real estate developer husband Fred (James Purefoy), but — surprise — there is none. As Gala attends to the opening of her wine store, she is approached by a pair of thugs, who we will come to know as Hank (Jim Kitson), the relatively more thuggish one, and Kevin (Amaury Nolasco), the comparatively sweeter one. They let her know that unless this debt is repaid in very short order, her daughter Kate (gifted newcomer Victoria Bazúa) and mother Julia (Maura) are as good as dead. And so, as Fred lights out for parts unknown, even to Gala, she hustles Kate and Julia off to (fictional) La Muga, the Catalan town Julia abruptly left behind half a century before.

As to Fred, we know he’s going to prove disposable even before La Muga’s most, possibly only handsome man, Amat (Santiago Cabrera), encounters Gala in an automotive meet-cute, when she runs his tractor off the road, spilling the load of grapes he was hauling; he’s the sole element in the town industry, winemaking, run by a cooperative of women. In classic form, they begin as antagonists that the writers contrive to keep at close quarters, which is to say, they are potential love interests, and if this is predictable, it is is also satisfying. It’s no spoiler to say that Purefoy won’t wind up with Longoria, anymore than Rosalind Russell, Carole Lombard and Ginger Rogers would choose Ralph Bellamy over Cary Grant, Fred McMurray and Fred Astaire. I mean, you would tear down the screen.

Santiago Cabrera plays Amat, Gala’s love interest, in “Land of Women.” (Apple TV+)

Dislocation is piled upon dislocation. Each woman, though they will literally be in bed together, has her own business to pursue. Julia, knowing about wine, has ideas about the local product — it stinks — which sets her against most of the town, but gives her a mission. Julia, we’re told, is on the edge of dementia; she has a tendency to flash back into her flirty, free-spirited past, adding a poignant element of time. She’s remembered, not necessarily well, by her former neighbors and has bad blood with her sister Mariona (Gloria Muñoz), but she looks upon everything with wide-eyed joy; Maura seems actually to glow. And Kate, who like Bazúa is trans, deals with the absence of her father, her American girlfriend and her cellphone, which Gala tosses out the window in a fit of pique. And trouble will, of course, follow them from across the ocean.

Created by Ramón Campos, Teresa Fernández-Valdés and Gema R. Neira from, though not following, the novel “La tierra de las mujeres” by Sandra Barneda and performed mostly in Spanish, the series has a European quality — not just for its setting, but in the matter-of-factness of its production and pacing. Its fairy-tale, feel-good elements are naturalistically framed, which makes it enchanting on the one hand and genuinely moving on the other, and keeps it from corniness — even when it’s predictable, it isn’t obvious.

Directed largely by Carlos Sedes, “Land of Women” stays remarkably focused, addressing its overlapping affairs without dissipating its energy, or, as is so often the case with streaming series, wasting time on unprofitable tangents. And there is, of course, the raw touristic appeal. “Land of Women” belongs to a whole class of films and series in which city people go to the country, or to another country, to learn they’ve been doing life wrong — something many if not most of us may have suspected sometime.

These scenes and those twin stories make it seem “Sunny” is luring you in for what would have been called a watercooler show back when people went to offices. Unfortunately, the show, adapted by Katie Robbins from Colin O’Sullivan’s novel “The Dark Manual” and debuting on Apple TV+ this Wednesday, only partially fulfills its promise.

Suzie came to Japan seeking to escape her unhappiness and her mistakes in America; she met and fell in love with Masa, who is similarly haunted by depression, tragedy, and a tendency to drown his troubles in drink. Both keep secrets from each other, most notable is that Suzie thinks Masa works in refrigerators when he has really been working for years on a top-secret robot building project. She finds out when a mystery man (a wonderfully understated Jun Kunimura) shows up with Sunny, an advanced “homebot” that Masa apparently personalized for her. (In this slightly futuristic world, the tech includes not just basic homebots who perform household chores, but also earpieces that translate languages, allowing Suzie to refuse to learn Japanese.)

Jones carries the show superbly, dragging us down into Suzie’s stupefied grief after the plane crash, though we quickly learn that her penchant for foul-mouthed tirades and sharp-tongued sarcasm — she’d not only horrify Ann Perkins, she might even make April Ludgate blush — are traits she has allowed to fester for years. Jones is masterful with both the uncontrolled anger and the dry cutting comments. Though Suzie is impulsive and impatient, Jones keeps her relatable as she inches her way toward humanity and even heroism.

Nishijima (“Drive My Car”) is equally excellent as Masa in flashbacks, whether he’s charming Suzie with his unadorned frankness or wallowing in and then emerging from his own sorrows. The eighth episode, which travels back to his childhood to flesh out his story, helps us understand both why Suzie fell for him and why he never fully opened up to her; love makes people vulnerable, he says, and that’s a state in which neither feels comfortable.

Hidetoshi Nishijima in a scene from “Sunny.” Apple TV+ via APSunny (voiced by Joanna Sotomura) is built to please. Ultimately we learn (minor spoiler alert) that Masa was trying to build bots that could cure extreme loneliness among society’s shyest and most withdrawn citizens. (When Suzie is miserable in bed and asks the bot to lie with her, Sunny simulates human breathing for added comfort.)

At first Sunny is so overeager and chirpy that she’d annoy any of us, but for Suzie, she’s a nightmare. The show does a good job of mining the dynamics of a classic buddy-cop comedy. Suzie learns from Sunny, but Sunny also learns about being human from Suzie (this includes tossing around curses and the word “pathological” as a putdown).

Their relationship is entertaining and a compelling illustration of the unintended consequences of giving bots the ability to adapt and learn complex human emotions like jealousy. However, the main robot story line involves the attempt by Yakuza gangsters to steal Sunny and alter her code to program other robots to maim and kill. This is where the show falters.

I often complain about shows and movie franchises that somehow always make it seem like the fate of the entire planet rests on the shoulders of our protagonist (James Bond, Jack Bauer), but “Sunny” narrows its conflict too much. The villain here, a woman named Hime (written as a caricature and played too broadly by an actress known as You) seems to want Sunny’s secret codes mostly so she, not her cousin, can gain control of the clan when her father dies.


At a time when killer robots are making front page news for their use in the Russia-Ukraine War, this seems like a missed opportunity. And every time the series leaves Suzie, Sunny, or Masa for the internecine bickering of the gang, it’ll make you yearn for the second season of “Severance” to watch instead of this.

There are other weaknesses. The trite story line involving Suzie’s conflict with her mother-in-law is further weakened by the undercooked writing propping up that character; Suzie’s new friend, Mixxy, who helps solve mysteries

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