review

Sugar review: Colin Farrell’s LA noir mystery is a messy patchwork undone by its big twist

Headshot of Wenlei Ma
Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Sugar stars Colin Farrell as a private detective.
Sugar stars Colin Farrell as a private detective. Credit: Apple TV+

No one sets out to fail but if it’s going to happen, at least go down swinging. Sugar was indeed a big swing and if nothing else, it was ambitious and interesting in how it doesn’t quite work.

The Colin Farrell series is ostensibly a modern-day Los Angeles private eye story, an homage to classic Hollywood film noir.

The Irish actor portrays John Sugar, a private detective who specialises in locating missing persons. He abhors violence but is very adept at it and loves top-shelf whisky.

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But unlike Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Sugar isn’t hardened by all the injustice and corruption he sees. If anything, Sugar is something of an optimist. He believes in the good in humanity.

And he’s a very decent person. When he encounters a homeless person during his investigation, he goes out of his way to help the man and his very good dog, Wiley. Sugar isn’t looking to gain an advantage or even cultivate him as Sherlock Holmes does with his Irregulars. He really is just looking out for the man.

Sugar stars Colin Farrell as a private detective.
Colin Farrell with Kirby Howell-Baptiste in Sugar. Credit: Apple TV+

Obsessed with old-time movies, he’s a teeny bit starstruck when he meets his latest client, big-time Hollywood producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell) whose granddaughter Olivia (Sydney Chandler) is missing. The Siegels are Hollywood royalty and the rest of the family (Dennis Boutsikaris, Nate Corddry, Anna Gunn) are varying levels of contemptuous.

He also investigates Melanie (Amy Ryan), an ageing rockstar and Olivia’s former stepmother, an alcoholic who’s always trying to quit drinking and whose seeming world-weariness is a cover for a desire to meaningfully connect.

As Sugar unravels a crime network of nefarious schemes and threatening goons, there’s a distinct feeling someone (or someones) is working against him. And all in the harsh LA sunshine which belies the city’s dark secrets.

Add to that a moody jazz soundtrack and Farrell’s voiceover narration, and it feels a lot like LA noir. But there are all these inconsistencies that point to verisimilitude rather than the real thing.

Sugar stars Colin Farrell as a private detective.
James Cromwell was also in LA Confidential, referenced in Sugar. Credit: Apple TV+

Because Sugar is a bait-and-switch. It is not the show you’ve been led to believe you’re watching. It’s not unusual for a story, especially a mystery, to hold something back from its audience but this one is a whopper.

If you really don’t want to know even the mildest of spoilers – such as the series’ genre – then skip off now. There are no plot reveals or spoilers ahead, only that there is a twist.

The first clue of Sugar’s deception is that among its executive producers is Simon Kinberg, a writer and producer best known for films including Jumper, X-Men: First Class, and Elysium. He’s done other things as well but he primarily works in sci-fi. The other hint is even Apple’s marketing write-up calls Sugar a “genre-bending” show.

Yes, Sugar is secretly a sci-fi series but the reveal does not come until the end of the sixth episode in a run of eight. By then, your patience is worn thin as the seams start to come apart as more and more things don’t hold together, except in the light of this big twist.

You may find yourself thinking, “This better be a parallel universes thing because otherwise, this is just poor editing and continuity errors”. This is neither confirmation nor denial that Sugar is multiversal.

Sugar stars Colin Farrell as a private detective.
Amy Ryan in Sugar. Credit: Apple TV+

But not all of its pain points can be explained by its trickery. And it waited too long to show its cards, which makes the first six episodes interminable and the final two episodes rushed as it tries to coalesce around its true identity and thematic ambitions.

If it gets a second season, that clear air could do it a world of good. It could even, maybe, do a better job at evoking LA.

Even though Farrell is incredibly charming in this unassuming but effective performance, it’s not enough to save the series from its messiness.

Throughout, it splices in clips from old movies including Vertigo or Bogart, as a nod to both the character’s fondness for classics but also to the show’s influences. There’s a logical reason for it but what it really does is remind you that Sugar is a disjointed patchwork.

It’s a laboured streaming series that’s trying to be one thing while it hides its true self but it doesn’t work as either. At least it tried and that’s not nothing.

Rating: 2.5/5

Sugar is on Apple TV+ from April 5

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