Kal Penn is an appealing actor whose airy, loose charisma has lately exceeded his luck: On TV in recent years, Penn has appeared on vexed series including “We Are Men,” “Battle Creek,” and “Designated Survivor.” Happily, on his new sitcom, “Sunnyside,” Penn seems to be porting in experience from a different part of his career — the time he spent working in President Barack Obama’s administration, in the Office of Public Engagement. That branch works, as its name would indicate, to keep the public engaged with the work of government. In “Sunnyside,” Penn makes the job literal, playing a disengaged former politician who takes on a new kind of constituent outreach. It’s a job that matches both his experience and his gifts, and a very promising pilot for NBC.
Penn’s Garrett Modi is a former New York City Councilman — representing Sunnyside, an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Queens — drummed out of office after a scandal involving public drunkenness; if it hadn’t been for one bad night, though, he’d either have found himself rejected by voters or, worse for him and for them, slouched into long-term incumbency. Having started from a position that politicians don’t have a real obligation to make things better, Modi has proven there were further depths of cynicism to which he could slide. Over the course of the pilot, though, Modi finds himself involved with a group of new Americans seeking to pass the immigration exam; he agrees to tutor them less out of civic pride than because he needs the money so as to stop living with his sister (Kiran Deol).
In its earliest going, “Sunnyside” would seem to share a mission with “Parks and Recreation”; with that show’s executive producer Michael Schur on board here, too, it certainly shares DNA. But on that previous show, protagonist Leslie Knope’s all-consuming faith in the process could cloy and come to seem overmatched by its historical moment; her most consistent political opposition was a co-worker who deeply respected her, making the series feel at times like a comedy about an alternate universe’s discourse. Here, the opposition is ICE, a faceless force that provides both Modi and his charges with real stakes against which to fight.
The group is well-drawn, including Joel Kim Booster and Poppy Liu as a pair of wealthy Asian immigrants who’d prefer to buy their way out of the situation; Moses Storm as a young man raised from early childhood in the U.S. who doesn’t know where his putative homeland of Moldova even is; and Diana-Maria Riva and Samba Schutte as working stiffs whose talents and resourcefulness plainly exceed the opportunities they’ve been given. These characters share both a commitment to depicting the various constituencies in the real Sunnyside and a half-sour cynicism that makes the show’s political calculus feel real and intriguing. They don’t want to learn about the Constitution in order to marvel at the grandeur of democracy; they want to so they can move on with their lives. Leslie Knope, with her posters of great leaders an increasingly uneasy fit with a deflated age, has left the building.
And yet there is some inspiration in the sitcom’s first installment; Modi does, if for less-than-admirable reasons, the right thing, and he finds in so doing a sort of political action vastly more interesting than had been his holding office. As a depiction of activism and making change, the promising “Sunnyside” pilot makes a strong case that it begins with one’s neighbors, and builds out a neighborhood well worth watching.
“Sunnyside.” NBC. Sept. 26. One episode screened for review.
Cast: Kal Penn, Diana Maria Riva, Joel Kim Booster, Kiran Deol, Poppy Liu, Moses Storm, Samba Schutte
Executive Producers: Kal Penn, Matt Murray, Michael Schur, David Miner, Dan Spilo