'Perfect Harmony' and 'Sunnyside': TV Reviews

Sunnyside-Perfect Harmony - Publicity Stills - Split - H 2019
Colleen Hayes/NBC; Justin Lubin/NBC
Both have promising elements, but initially flounder.

Bradley Whitford and Kal Penn are men in need of redemption in two new, initially disappointing NBC Thursday night comedies.

From Superstore to AP Bio to Abby's, my recent NBC comedy pilot reviews have had a certain similarity: great cast, workable premise, not very many laughs, but the potential is evident.

Allow me, then, to mix up that formula with NBC's two new Thursday comedies, Perfect Harmony and Sunnyside. Neither pilot has very many laughs, both pilots have very strong and appealing casts, but in these cases, based only on one episode apiece, neither appears to have a workable premise — and for all the talent on both sides of the camera, neither is anywhere near good enough for me to be confident in their potential.

Though they might get better eventually, and the basic elements are probably there, Perfect Harmony and Sunnyside are two of the more confusing and disappointing broadcast pilots of the fall.

Perfect Harmony is the confusing one.

Created by Lesley Wake Webster, Perfect Harmony is the story of Arthur Cochran (Bradley Whitford), formerly the chair of Princeton's music department, now marooned in rural Kentucky and contemplating suicide after the death of his wife. Drunk and popping pills, Arthur gets a sign from on high when he overhears a rehearsal by a small-town church's choir. Inspired by their ineptitude and, more so, by the desire to topple the choir from a rival mega-church (overseen by John Carroll Lynch with a bad hairpiece), Arthur is lured to assist the choir, which features a bubbly local waitress (Anna Camp), her impressively dumb ex-husband (Will Greenberg), a talented bass (Geno Segers) with a crush on the waitress, the church's well-meaning reverend (Rizwan Manji) and the woman who gets offended when Arthur says rude stuff (Tymberlee Hill).

From here, you can guess the drill. He'll teach them. They'll teach him. And maybe by the time the choir competes at regionals, this discordant group of outsiders will, as a unit, finally be in… perfect harmony.

That seems like a fairly reasonable template for the first season of a TV show, right? A little Glee, a little Pitch Perfect and a little Mr. Holland's Opus?

Instead, what probably would have been a 100-minute feature film becomes a confusingly gutted 21-minute pilot in which every plot machination is unmotivated, every character shift illogical and every attempted emotional moment unearned. Pilot director Jason Winer (Modern Family) is an Emmy-nominated master of the single-camera comedy form, but there's nothing he can do to reduce the choppiness of an episode in which each act break marks the end of what could or should have been a full episode — except those full episodes would have let characters develop and allowed for some sort of cumulative effect to build.

I don't understand how this wasn't a conversation that came up right at the beginning of the development process. "We like the basic shape of this, but let's rethink the structure so that things that happen in the pilot will actually mean something to a viewer and viewers will be able to figure out what the ongoing series is." After the pilot, I'm at a loss and my investment is limited.

You might find yourself feeling some affection for Arthur, but that's entirely because this is a perfect part for Whitford, in theory. He's been perfectly playing punctured pomposity for much of his career and he's great at giving characters plausible redemption. Here, a growth curve that should have been deliberate and organic is rushed and weakly justified by the text.

Camp does her bubbly best and gets the bulk of the first episode's secondary story, complemented by by Segers' deep-voiced innocence. That leaves Manji as a character with one joke — he was raised by missionaries and only knows judgmental titles for American movies like "Don't Get AIDS" instead of Philadelphia — and Hill doesn't even get that much. The bigger story has nowhere to go after the pilot, Arthur's story has only backsliding and other than a single uninteresting love triangle, none of the other characters provides anything worth investing in.

The music is fine.

Like Perfect HarmonySunnyside has its heart generally in the right place as one of several new shows celebrating the importance of the immigrant experience to the American tapestry.

And like Perfect Harmony, the pilot reduces most of the characters to single-joke outlines and offers limited shape for an ongoing series.

Kal Penn, co-creator with Matt Murray, plays Garrett Modi, a former wunderkind New York City councilman who went from an inspiring young politico with White House aspirations to hobnobbing with D-list celebrities and drunkenly humiliating himself. One particular incident made him a notorious meme and forced him to resign his post, break up with his girlfriend and move in with his sister (Kiran Deol's Mallory).

Content to whore himself out for his ill-gotten fame while plotting his comeback, Garrett gets hired by a group of immigrants who need his help to get their citizenship. There's Dominican Griselda (Diana-Maria Riva), who works multiple jobs. There's Brady (Moses Storm), who insists he's American because he's lived here since he was 2 years old, though the government now views him as Moldovan. There are ultra-wealthy, ultra vapid siblings Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster) and Mei Lin (Poppy Liu), who refuse to say what country they're actually from. And there's Hakim (Samba Schutte), a cardiothoracic surgeon back in Ethiopia and a cab driver now.

Garrett's arc is exactly the arc Arthur has to go through on Perfect Harmony, only barely more believable and barely less rushed. You know within seconds that as much as he has to teach the gang, the lessons they're going to impart to him, with their shared appreciation for the American Dream, will be far greater. The show accurately and in detail stresses how complicated it is to achieve citizenship, presumably to cut off questions about how long the series will be able to spin its wheels with this group. As long as it wants, I guess. Bureaucracy goes on forever.

That still doesn't say what Sunnyside is, since the pilot is a hang-out show with the group meeting in a bar and at one or two other locations, making the occasional jokes about the constitution and each character repeating the one joke related to their only introduced traits. For a show that has its heart so completely in the right place and has such a decent cast, it's an unexpected slog and offers none of the visual distinctiveness director Oz Rodriguez brought to AP Bio.

The parts I appreciated most were pulled from Penn's own Indian-American background, including the character's last name. Specific, but not funny. Still, his scenes with Deol are the best in the pilot.

I think Booster is probably the breakout from the pilot and he has one joke at the very end, after a half-dozen similar iterations about Jun Ho and Mei Lin's riches, that finally made me laugh. Nothing else did.

I'll give both comedies a few more episodes. I tend to like Whitford and Camp. I like most of the Sunnyside cast and the show is executive produced by Mike Schur, whose optimistic comic approach usually makes me very happy. I wish I could have seen a couple more of those episodes before writing this review so I could have been more hopeful.

Perfect Harmony and Sunnyside premiere Thursday at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, respectively (NBC)