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Rashida Jones gives a stunning performance in the movie ‘Sunny’

Rashida Jones gives a stunning performance in the movie ‘Sunny’

Some shows leave a bad taste in your mouth.

This is a weird way to talk about ambiance, I realize — or style, or narrative weight — but the mood of a particular series gets me every time it invades my days long after I’ve forgotten a plot twist or major development.Sunny” creator Katie Robbins’ shiny new show for Apple TV Plus, starring Rashida Jones opposite a 3-foot-tall robot, seemed unlikely to join their ranks. The show looks dark, scary, and fun in previews, but it’s also a bit forgettable. The eponymous robot (voiced by Joanna Sotomura) says everything too brightly. Bad girl Hime (played by You) is fun but distinctly cartoonish. The action scenes seem like standard fare. But this dark comedy about technology and loneliness—disguised as a thriller about a helpful “house robot” with killer potential—is a real deal. (of course) to curb my hope — it got under my skin and stayed there.

Set in Kyoto, “Sunny” tells the story of Suzie Sakamoto (Rashida Jones), an American immigrant and misanthrope reeling from the deaths of her husband and son in a plane crash. Jones plays Suzie as reflexively unpleasant, if grieving. Impatient, foul-mouthed, and brash, Suzie has never learned Japanese, but she manages to get into spats with various Japanese officials with the help of an in-ear translator. Her clashes with her withdrawn and aloof mother-in-law, Noriko (Judy Ongg), rarely escalate into actual conflict. Through performances that feel realistic, sometimes bordering on mumblecore, Ongg and Jones create a whole world (and a thorny shared past) out of their stock, tension-free hostility. The low-key, familiar, stuffy, low-fi tone of their opposition elevates them both; paradoxically, their measured unpleasantness makes them all the more endearing. This subtle character study works very well to anchor and neutralize the general, run-of-the-mill nonsense of thrillers.

“Sunny” begins with Noriko forcing Suzie to engage in a collective mourning exercise for the families of those killed in the accident. Each person calls the phone of a deceased loved one to listen to their voicemail messages and suffer the pain of hearing them one last time. When Suzie finally gives in and calls, her husband Masa’s (Hidetoshi Nishijima) phone, which was supposed to be off, continues to ring. The tension really begins when a man claiming to work for Masa shows up at her door with a consolation gift from his employer, a company called ImaTech. The gift is a home robot named Sunny, which Masa allegedly programmed for Suzie himself.

Suzie hates homebots. She also believed that Masa worked on refrigerators, not robots, as she had told her during their 10-year relationship. This is the mystery that Suzie is forced to solve, while Sunny tries to gain the goodwill of her owner (and the audience) through acts of service, kind questions, and benevolent outbursts of disobedience. Assisting Suzie in her investigations is Mixxy (Clumsy Annie), a bartender who warns her of a thriving black market for code snippets that people buy to hack homebots into performing other functions. Watching over Suzie and Sunny is Hime, the ambitious daughter of an ailing Yakuza leader. Soft-spoken, deliciously creepy, and He’s dying to get his hands on a definitive hacker’s guide to home robots known as “The Dark Guide.” (This is also Colin O’Sullivan novel (Armed with this code, which Masa apparently had a hand in writing, Hime hopes to outsource the executions, retain power, and take over when her father dies.)

But the real story of the series isn’t the homebot, the code that can hack it, or Sunny’s competently (and sometimes touchingly) presented growing sensitivity. The heart of the series is more modest, filled with deceptively simple questions. For example, “Why did my father hate me?” (Another question that one character sees as a programming challenge involves teaching a robot the difference between “trash” and “not trash.”)

What compounds Suzie’s pain at losing her family is the realization that she may not know the one person (aside from her son) with whom she’s ever had a meaningful connection. The series revolves around the ugly things she might discover about herself, and the fear that she might be mourning something that never existed, and that she might have lost her son as a result. That question—“What did I miss?” in all its pitiful loneliness—is the series’ driving tension. And “Sunny” is no “Big Little Lies” or “The Undoing,” in which the answer is to identify a monster and unravel. Quite the opposite is true: As the suspense grows more punchy and predictable, the series’ meditations on what went wrong or left unsaid between Masa and Suzie grow smaller. More precise. More precise.

“Sunny” will win without a doubt There are comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s 2003 examination of American loneliness in Japan, “Lost in Translation,” and Apple TV Plus’s “Severance,” which uses a bit of low-key futurism to explore grief and disconnection. But “Sunny”’s more relevant counterpart is probably the recent Netflix series “Eric,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the host of a beloved children’s TV series whose son has gone missing. Both series make their grieving protagonists unlikeable. Both provide a therapeutic but inanimate companion to a parent’s search for answers (a giant puppet in “Eric,” a robot in “Sunny”). Both are technically thrillers held captive by a pretextual, only semi-coherent story involving organized crime. Both treat their missing sons as beautiful but largely symbolic ciphers. Both are named after their main numbers, and both proceed to a fairly predictable, over-telegraphed twist.

But “Sunny” succeeds where “Eric” falls short. Where the latter struggles in an admirable but poorly executed effort to weave racism (and the AIDS epidemic, and homophobia, and urban corruption in 1980s New York) into a tale of mental illness, narcissism, gentrification, and addiction, “Sunny” is stark and focused. Its themes are few. Its world is stripped-down. The show’s version of Japan — except for one memorable episode parodying Japanese television — is more commonplace than exotic. Even its futurism is curated, restrained. Its home robots are charmingly simple, almost buttonless. The devices people use instead of cell phones are just a little alien and comfortable, analog. (Instead of screens, they’re tiny projectors.) While both shows deliver great performances considering the (extremely challenging) circumstances, Jones’s quiet, precise, and realistic work as the robot gives his scenes the expert specificity of a seasoned miniaturist.

So, given the stupid cliffhanger that ended the first season, I worry that the series is misunderstanding its strengths. They don’t include “realistic action scenes” or tight plotting. But if a second season comes, I’ll devour it, because I desperately want more of the proud, edgy, engaging, strangely relatable world it’s built around Suzie, Noriko, and Mixxy. If that’s tempered with a little AI theory and a few over-the-top Yakuza scenes, so much the better.

Sunny (10 episodes) Premieres with two episodes on Apple TV Plus on July 10. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly.