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TV Review: Two New Sitcoms Fit the NBC Thursday Night Mold

A pair of new sitcoms join the legendary NBC Thursday night comedy block this week, hoping to find some of the success of modern classics like “30 Rock,” “The Office,” and “Parks and Recreation,” or at least something comparable to current hits like “Superstore” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” Both feel distinctly like NBC shows, driven by cynical leads surrounded by more optimistic, kinder souls. The ironic part is that they both could be accused of nearly the same structure as “A.P. Bio,” a show NBC just canceled (before reversing course and announcing it would return on their streaming service, Peacock.) The folks at NBC and behind these shows clearly hope for better things for “Sunnyside” and “Perfect Harmony,” and I think they’ll find greener pastures for at least one of them.

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The stronger of the pair is “Sunnyside,” a nice partner to the network’s “Superstore” in the way it blends ensemble comedy and working-class concerns. A comedy about the immigration crisis may not seem like an easy sell, but the pilot is smart and funny in ways that shows aren’t often right out of the gate. Anchored by someone who actually knows a thing or two about politics, “Sunnyside” proves a perfect fit for Kal Penn, the rare TV vet who can also boast of having worked in the White House.

Penn stars as Garrett Modi, a New York City councilman in Sunnyside, Queens. As the series opens, he’s dealing with the fallout after a DUI arrest that also just happened to include a viral video of him puking on a cop car after offering the officer a bribe. Leaving his position in shame, Modi wonders what he actually accomplished in office, and tries to plan his next move, which leads him into a group of immigrants working to become citizens. At first, he’s just taking their money and teaching them civics lessons he barely knows, but he comes to like this ragtag group of people who are being impacted and threatened by stricter immigration laws, including a woman with a dozen or so jobs named Griselda (Diana-Maria Riva), a Moldavian young man named Brady (Moses Storm), and Ethiopian cab driver named Hakim (Samba Schutte), and a hysterical pair of rick kids (Kiran Deol and Poppy Liu) who think everything can be solved with money.

Penn co-wrote the pilot, which is a nice blend of character introductions and smart humor that obviously plays with the political but not in a way that feels overly preachy or simplistic. The recurring joke that Griselda actually works at every location they go to, including restaurants and even the library, is a funny one while also commenting on the current state of an economy that requires multiple jobs. A bit in which Hakim reveals he was a doctor in his home country but has to drive a cab here is a bit on-the-nose, but also reflective of a show that still seems to believe America is worth fighting for. I could see it working for both sides of the political aisle, while providing laughs enough for everyone.

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The laughs are scarcer in “Perfect Harmony,” a show with an engaging ensemble but a bit too many clichés and flat jokes in the premiere. This is one of those cases in which reviewing one episode of a new comedy feels somewhat useless in that the ensemble here could develop their chemistry and the writers could learn to write for them by the end of the calendar year. Or, the cracks in the pilot could deepen and it could be canceled by Thanksgiving.

Bradley Whitford stars as Arthur Cochran, a bitter soul who came to his wife’s hometown with her as she was dying, so she could say goodbye. Now he feels stuck there, without much reason to live. That’s when a near suicide attempt leads him into a church as its choir is practicing. They’re horrible, but Cochran sees potential in them and a chance for revenge if they can become good enough to beat their rival, who just happens to lead the mega-church that refused to hold the services for Cochran’s wife (and is led by the always-welcome John Carroll Lynch).

The cynical guy working with the kinder, trusting people to get vengeance is a very NBC model but the jokes here lack teeth (“Save your prayers for your hairline”) and the premise gets hit too hard in the premiere (the ragtag losers literally self-describe as “loving yet pushy”). There’s also a subplot involving divorce that feels manipulative and cheap. Anna Camp is charming and could be the break-out if the show becomes a hit, but it will need to find a better tune to sing if that’s going to happen.

One episode of each screened for review.

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