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'Sunny' on Apple TV+: Rashida Jones stars in AI mystery series, with a killer soundtrack

"There is the possibility of greatness within AI, if we can be really careful and circumspect about it," series creator Katie Robbins said

Rashida Jones leads the Japan-set series Sunny on Apple TV+, a thriller with appealing dark comedy elements, based on Colin O’Sullivan’s novel "The Dark Manual." Created by Katie Robbins, the show is a fascinating and impeccably stylized look at the possible evolution of the relationship between humans and robots, while trying to solve a complicated mystery.

Sunny begins after Suzie's (Jones) husband and son are among the individuals who have disappeared after a plane crash. While she's trying to work though her emotions related to this loss, and reality of what's happened to her family, Suzie is given a robot named Sunny (played by Joanna Sotomura).

While Sunny is meant to be a sort of companion and emotional support while she's now alone, Suzie is particularly apprehensive, and actually quite negative about having this domestic robot. But as the story progresses, Sunny becomes a window into her husband's secrets that Suzie never knew about.

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For Robbins, there were themes in O’Sullivan’s book that particularly interested her in crafting a new series.

"It was dealing with themes that I've been really interested in exploring, so themes of loneliness and the question of what people do after great loss and after great trauma," Robbins told Yahoo Canada. "And then there was this robot in there, and I had never written anything sci-fi at all, but I had been starting to read a little bit about the ways in which AI can be used as kind of a transitional object or a surrogate when people are in times of loss, or transition, or grief, and I thought that was really interesting."

"So I took the seeds of what was in the novel and kind of turned it on its head and made the robot a female robot, because I was really interested in exploring themes of female friendship. Because I am a mom with two little kids and I never get to see my female friends anymore, and I miss them deeply. ... It just was this sort of perfect nexus of a lot of things that I'd wanted to be talking about."

annie the clumsy and Rashida Jones in
annie the clumsy and Rashida Jones in "Sunny," now streaming on Apple TV+.

Throughout Sunny, Suzie has a particularly cynical and sarcastic disposition, and sense of humour, which Jones executes in such an appealing way that makes you feel particularly connected to her character. Paired with Sunny's overly joyful personality and cuteness, and it's a beautiful match.

"I always think, even though she's an American character, there's oddly something British about Suzie's sort of sardonic, sarcastic sensibility that I was naturally drawn towards," director and executive producer Lucy Tcherniak said.

"I found it was a complex, fascinating way to look at a character that was grieving, who was needing to find out who the person she was grieving really was, using that as a coping mechanism for dealing with her grief, but also the way to grieve. She was an incredible character from the outline that I first read many years ago."

"I think it's like a protective mechanism for her," Robbins added.

"She is a person who has found a way of kind of getting through life, even before what happens at the beginning of our story, of protecting herself by not letting herself be too vulnerable, because if you don't let yourself be vulnerable then you're never going to get hurt. She's learned that and so her prickliness and her sarcasm, and then sort of sardonic humour are a way of keeping people at arm's length, which is something that I also relate to."

Rashida Jones in
Rashida Jones in "Sunny," now streaming on Apple TV+.

While many people are enamoured with Japanese aesthetics, from fashion to tech and architecture, watching Sunny feels like particularly multidimensional storytelling. Many scenes in the series are particularly appealing visually, playing with colour and Japanese interior design, for example, but the music, led by Daniel Hart for the show, includes perfectly selected and placed choices from the '50s, '60s and early '70s. It gives the show a unique feel, but also really amplifies your feelings in any particular moment, whether a funnier scene or a more stress-inducing time in the story.

"The first time I met Lucy, she'd read the outline and she came in to talk about it, and she created a playlist, and her playlist was this extraordinary playlist of '60s, '70s, we eventually expanded to have a little bit of late '50s in there, Japanese pop songs," Robbins recalled. "I listened to it and I was like, 'I'm in love with this woman. I want to work with her for the rest of my life. She's extraordinary.' And it became this seed for the visual language of the show."

Bringing Hart on board, Robbins began writing to this evolving playlist, which she described as the "bedrock" of the storytelling in Sunny.

"In building the whole world of of Sunny, what was fascinating ... was this tension between old and new, and shooting a grounded sci-fi show that was set in Kyoto, this very ancient city. ... There are streets there that feel like they haven't changed for so long, and never will, and yet you've got these robots going down the streets," Tcherniak explained.

"I think in building out a world that was set in the near future, we didn't want any present day tracks, because that dates it. ... And that music, like '60s Japanese pop, is just f**king cool, and tonally felt like it was doing something really interesting. ... This upbeat Japanese pop played against some scenes that are maybe more tragic was giving us a real flavour of the tone, and slightly sort of playful feel to it all."

Rashida Jones in
Rashida Jones in "Sunny," now streaming on Apple TV+.

A story like Sunny feels particularly relevant right now, with significant questions and concerns about the extent of AI use, as technology evolves. But the series also proposes a circumstance where robots can help people discover their humanity.

For Robbins, her feelings about AI have shifted throughout the process of making the series and releasing it to the world.

"I was so sort of struck by robotics and AI as being similar to the way that art or music is, it is reflective of who we are as human beings and we are the ones creating it, and on some level we're creating it as a way of speaking to who we are," Robbins said. "There is a beauty in that, in just the way that there is a beauty in all things that people create, and just like all things that people create there is a flip, there's the underside of the rock."

"In the writing process and I think in our filming process there was this sense of real optimism. While we were shooting ChatGBT came out and so suddenly, as a writer, I was like, 'Oh f**k this is really terrible.' I feel more complicated about it, even than I did at the time of writing it, but I still also do think that there is the possibility of greatness within AI, if we can be really careful and circumspect about it. And I don't know how much I trust us all to do that. But I think it's still there and this show is hopefully a way of talking about the promise and the optimism and the potential of it, whilst also offering a warning of what can happen if it slips into the wrong hands."

Sunny premieres globally with the first two episodes on July 10, followed by new episodes every Wednesday through September 4