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'Sunnyside' review: Queens nabe gets its closeup in this big-hearted sitcom

Kal Penn stars in NBC's new "Sunnyside."

Kal Penn stars in NBC's new "Sunnyside." Credit: NBC/Colleen Hayes

SERIES "Sunnyside"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC/4

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Disgraced NYC Councilman Garrett Modi (Kal Penn) is thrown out of office — a DUI caught on film — then moves in with his sister, Mallory (Kiran Deol). He's now seeking a comeback, or at least redemption, and may have just found it in a group of young immigrants looking for citizenship, including Hakim (Samba Schutte), Brady, (Moses Storm), Griselda (Diana Maria Riva), Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster) and Mei Lin (Poppy Liu). He offers to help them. (Most of the supporting cast, by the way, were born overseas.) 

MY SAY Like neighboring Woodside and Astoria, Sunnyside is one of the most diverse square miles on the entire globe, full of vitality, street life and an abiding sense that if people can get along here, why can't they get along in the rest of that globe? It's a reasonable assumption that other New Yorkers, as they sail along (or stop) on the LIE and BQE, don't know this neighborhood all that well either. But over there, or down there, just past the Queens Boulevard exit, and on the other side of Calvary Cemetery, is another world, plus one more reason why New York City is the greatest city on the planet.

 With its sitcom-ready name, Sunnyside deserves a closeup and celebration too. Besides, when was the last time Queens got any kind of closeup? "The King of Queens" (1998-2007) was shot on a soundstage in Culver City. For the most part, this isn't filmed in Sunnyside either, but on some soulless soundstage out west too. (For a genuine homegrown Queens series, we'll have to wait for Awkwafina's Comedy Central series, "Nora from Queens," arriving early next year.) 

Nevertheless, with "Sunnyside," it's the thought that counts — that places like Sunnyside are as American as any place else in America, maybe more so, because the recent immigrants here cherish their new citizenship just as keenly as if they held a winning Lotto ticket. In good-hearted "Sunnyside," citizenship isn't something to be taken for granted, but something that an entire series hangs upon.

"Sunnyside" isn't overtly political — Penn of course famously left "House" to work in the Obama administration — but it is certainly implicitly political. Sunnyside, Queens, doesn't just make New York great, but America great too. That in fact could be the series' throughline, spelled out by Hakim for those who don't quite get the point: "I'm here because I love America and want to be a part of it. We all do."  

But any comedy series braided with sunny idealism as this one is needs to decide what's more important: The idealism or the comedy? "Sunnyside's" pilot comes down on the side of idealism, leaving the sitcom part in some sort of listless, half-baked limboland. We should probably be grateful it didn't turn into "Harold and Kumar come to Queens," although Penn's Garrett Modi is who Kumar would have become had he run for (and improbably won) an NYC councilman's seat. His boozy tenure would be measured in weeks, if not days. Like Kumar, Modi's a slapstick figure but because he's old enough to know better, an unsympathetic one too. He's a boob and a bore, and you're left to wonder, who would vote for this guy anyway? More problematic for "Sunnyside," who would watch him? 

 The series has a fancy production pedigree, with showrunners from "Brooklyn 911" (Mike Schur) and "Community" (Matt Murray). They should figure this out. They usually do. In the meantime, the pilot has one reason to watch.

Hint: It's in the title.

BOTTOM LINE Sunnyside (sort of) gets a closeup in this big-hearted sitcom. It's the sitcom part that's the problem, at least in Thursday's pilot.

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