If you have not already seen the episode, there are spoilers ahead.
The pilot episode of Sunnyside begins with a political ad for Garett Modi, our protagonist, from 2009 that promises a bright future for prospective voters in Sunnyside, Queens. From there, we’re taken to present-day New York to see Garett asleep in his council office — or, more accurately now, his successor, Diana Barea’s office. He treks from his old office-turned-living-space to his sister’s apartment, where we learn about his recent streak of bad luck. From a romantic break up to losing his job as the result of something dubbed only as “the thing” that led council to unanimously kick him out. Here, he presents his sister Mallory with a five-step plan with only one, two, and five filled in: “lie low,” “get a job,” and “re-election” respectively. He asks to live with her for the time being, and she reluctantly agrees after learning that he’s, as he put it, “completely broke.”
Once Garett is set up in Mallory’s office, he Googles himself. A YouTube video informs the audience what “the thing” means: he was arrested for vomiting on a police cruiser due to extreme intoxication then attempting to bribe the arresting officers. Dejected, he starts to close out of the window only to have his attention grabbed by an ad claiming he can “Earn money while talking about your life experience.” Despite the first step in his plan, Garett puts up a listing to spend the day with him for $50/hour and includes answering any questions.
This endeavor proves to be more humiliating than bountiful until a study group reaches out to Garett. The group reveals they are studying for a test that will allow them to become American citizens on their own, after the class they were in shut down when the building it was housed in was bought. Garett realizes they need him more for his resources than actually needing him and calls his old council friends. Due to his disgraced reputation, it’s no surprise that this endeavor fails spectacularly. Not wanting to disappoint a group of hopeful prospective citizens, he reaches out to Mallory who pretends she’s a councilman willing to help.
Over the course of the episode, we’re introduced to the characters of Sunnyside, starting, of course, with Garett Modi. His public display of poor decision-making is just the tip of the iceberg; we learn through Diana that he was wildly disappointing as a council member. His election was a surge of hope for the community who thought he was going to make real, impactful change. However, he used his power to party with influential Wall Street and celebrity personalities. He clearly misses his lavish life of partying and ample cashflow and is dissatisfied with his current station, setting up what is hopefully going to be a very satisfying character arc.
The study group’s unofficial ringleader is Brady, a young man from Moldova who believed he was American until he went to get his driver’s license and learned otherwise. It’s implied that he knows the most about the burdensome legalities surrounding living in America as an immigrant and is therefore angry at his situation. His mother brought him to America when he was two-years-old, then overstayed her visa when he was a child, putting him in his current predicament. He fights his Moldovan roots hard, made clear by his interactions with Drazen, the bar DJ who proudly hails from Moldova as well. These clashing attitudes of pride and shame set up yet another potential gratifying character arc in the cast.
We are also introduced to Griselda, a woman from the Dominican Republic who works tirelessly to pave her way in America. She seems to work everywhere; she’s wearing a FedEx uniform in her introduction, works at the bar where the group studies, teaches a Zumba class in the mornings before going to her paralegal job, and squeezes a few hours in at the Genius bar fixing phones. The anecdote of her day is meant to be heightened and comedic, while also driving home the reality for many immigrants in America. A similar jarring reality presents itself in Hakim, an Ethiopian surgeon that obtained his green card through driving taxis. The only people in the group who don’t seem to suffer the traditional stereotypes are Mei Lin and Jun Ho, who are “rich as hell but won’t say where they’re from,” according to their introduction from Brady.
As the hour winds down, Garett tries to leave, claiming that no one has called him back. Mei Lin calls him back, enticing him with a large stack of cash and claiming they want to hire him for a full week. He proudly boasts his new career to Mallory, telling her that he’ll use the money to hire a PR team for his re-election campaign while being “one of those ‘cool teachers,'” He starts immediately, taking the group to a baseball game and telling them that 30% of baseball players are immigrants. The running joke of Griselda’s jobs is continued here, as she begins selling soda in the stands after learning about baseball.
The next time we see the study group, they seem downcast. we learn that ICE took Drazen the previous night. The group asks Garett to call his council friends to at least find where he is, and Garett mistakenly reveals that no one on the council has spoken to him in months. Feeling betrayed after Garett promised to help, the study group leaves Garett alone at the bar that serves as their meeting place. He sulks back to Mallory’s apartment where she convinces him to do something to help Drazen rather than wallow in his feelings of helplessness.
Newly encouraged, he convinces the group to trust him again. They return to his old council office to ask Diana for help locating Drazen. She agrees to do what she can and an emboldened Garett asks if they can come to her for help during the process of studying for the citizenship test after agreeing to be their teacher.
Sunnyside seems to be entirely structured around the lives of immigrants in New York, from the realities of the lack of a work-life balance shown in Griselda to the disparity in Hakim’s esteemed profession in Ethiopia and his status as a cab driver in New York. Featuring a diverse and electric cast, Sunnyside offers an important and relevant narrative.
Tune in Thursdays on NBC at 9:30/8:30 CT after The Good Place!