“Sugar” : Review / Recommended for Fans of Weird Noir Thrillers

“Sugar” : Review / Recommended for Fans of Weird Noir Thrillers

©Colin Farrell in “Sugar,” premiering April 5, 2024 on Apple TV+.

In some ways, John Sugar shares similarities with the 1980s TV detective “Remington Steele.” They are both draw inspiration from their love of classic cinema to solve cases, while trying to keep their past lives shrouded in secrecy. However, they are very different in critically important ways, but it would be spoiler to explain how so. The detective’s latest case gets decidedly personal when he investigates one of Hollywood’s elite families in creator Mark Protosevich’s eight-episode “Sugar,” which premieres Friday on Apple TV+.

Sugar really is his name and he has strange talents. Among other things, has an unusual facility for languages. That is why he can work so easily in Japan during the series prologue. Although Sugar was hired by a feared yakuza boss to rescue a kidnapped child, Sugar still seeks a non-violent resolution. Unfortunately, the Japanese abductors do not appreciate his offer of a safe but empty-handed getaway, until it is too late for them.

This little vignette helps establish Sugar’s soft spot for children, troubled people, and lost causes. He even adopts an orphaned dog midway through the series. Much of what he does is due to his beloved younger sister, who ominously vanished years ago. Her resemblance to a Hollywood mogul’s missing granddaughter is also the major reason he takes the case, over the opposition of “Ruby,” his ambiguous agent or boss.

Of course, Sugar is a fan of Jonathan Siegel’s classic films as well. He is less enthusiastic about the cheesy B-movies produced by Siegel’s son Bernie, who shows a suspicious lack of concern over his missing daughter Olivia. Her half-brother David Siegel is overtly hostile towards Sugar, but the detective easily rebuffs his thuggish attempts at intimidation. At least Olivia’s mother shares her grandfather’s alarm. Long-divorced from Bernie Siegel, Melanie Matthews is an aging rock-star, somewhat in the mold of Patty Smyth (musically speaking). Chemistry starts percolating between her and Sugar, but it is not romantic. That rather confuses her, but she is grateful for his friendship.


 ©Colin Farrell and James Cromwell in “Sugar,” premiering April 5, 2024 on Apple TV+.

Sugar” is described as “genre-bending” series, which is certainly true. Experienced viewers might guess the twist from the hints Protosevich drops and the generally off-kilter tone, before it is explicitly revealed in the third episode. Even if the secret game-changer is not completely unexpected, it certainly adds another layer of intrigue. In fact, Protosevich (with David Rosen, Donald Joh, and Sam Catlin, his co-writers on later installments) ultimately take the narrative in a surprisingly sinister direction.

Every episode of “Sugar” incorporates many short snippets of classic Hollywood films to reflect John Sugar’s state of mind. Most are logically culled from vintage film noirs, some of the more recognizable being Robert Mitchum preaching fire and brimstone in “Night of the Hunter” and Glenn Ford roughing up mobsters in “The Big Heat.” It might sound distracting, but it works in the context of the series.

Directors Fernando Meirelles (five episodes) and Adam Arkin (three episodes) fully capture the seamy, noir side of Hollywood. Regardless of the genre-bending, “Sugar” consistently exudes a James Ellroy vibe. The funky, jazzy themes composed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad (of A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge further accentuates the retro-hip ambiance. As a result, the series is quite stylish, in both dreamy and sleazy kind of ways.

Colin Farrell’s lead performance is another example of the thesp’s talent for portraying the weird and wounded humanity of oddball characters, as perhaps best exemplified in Yorgos Lanthimos’s “The Lobster.” Sugar is not as strange, but he has his considerable eccentricities. Yet, Farrell can be as hardboiled as any of the great movie gumshoes Sugar often tries to emulate.


©Kirby and Colin Farrell in “Sugar,” premiering April 5, 2024 on Apple TV+.

One aspect of “Sugar” that particularly distinguishes it from the field of hipster mysteries is the unusual rapport Farrell develops with Amy Ryan, playing Melanie Matthews. They share a lot of tenderness, but it is always strictly platonic. Yet, their relationship culminates in an understated but potent pay-off.

Despite the sliminess of their characters, Bernie and David Siegel, Dennis Boutsikaris and Nate Corddry humanize them to a surprising extent. There is a tragic dimension to their scummy behavior that is quintessential Tinseltown. Of course, James Cromwell is perfectly cast as Jonathan Siegel, the crusty grandpa, with an edge. However, the series suffers from the lack of a flamboyant villain for the audience to root against. Instead, Protosevich stokes audience paranoia, implying some of Sugar’s closest associates may have very well betrayed him.

Whether or not viewers predict the “bending of genres” this review scrupulously avoids revealing, “Sugar” still functions very successfully as the detective show it initially presents itself to be. Protosevich and company do a nice job combining a lot of entertaining elements, including, but not limited to lurid scandal, murky conspiracies, and a really smart canine. Recommended for fans of weird noir thrillers in the tradition of “Mulholland Drive” and “Inherent Vice,” “Sugar” starts streaming this Friday (4/5) on Apple TV+.

Grade: A-

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Here’s the trailer of the Series. 

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