Categories: TV Reviews

‘Sugar’ Review: Colin Farrell is the King of L.A. Noir in New Sour Apple Series

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There are ways to pay tribute to cinema and television that came before contemporary media that honors the legacy of these narratives while building onto existing tropes and storytelling devices and creating originality. Rick & Morty pulls in ideas from other science fiction stories, even the main title theme having a distinct similarity to that of Doctor Who, while films like Dev Patel’s directorial debut Monkey Man pull influence from Korean action films and the recent John Wick franchise. To pay homage to something is to not only honor it, but to help bring further originality to the genre being contributed to. One of AppleTV+’s newest entries, Sugar, is a limited series that’s so bogged down in noir tropes that it struggles to be anything but a collection of monotonous scenes more concerned with honoring a genre than telling an engaging story.

From freshman television creator Mark Protosevich (writer of I Am Legend and 2013’s Old Boy), Sugar tells the story of private investigator John Sugar (Academy Award nominee Colin Farrell) gallivanting around Los Angeles looking into things that are usually not his business. He’s helped by Ruby (Kirby, Why Women Kill), a woman whose job appears to be organizing Sugar’s jobs, but has an importance around her that indicates it could be more than that. Sugar is contacted by Jonathan Siegel (Academy Award nominee James Cromwell) to look for his granddaughter, Olivia, who he hasn’t seen and feels as if no one is taking seriously enough. It’s a pretty standard narrative for a noir like this, but the problems begin by not allowing a fresh take on the story and issues go deeper as the episodes go on. Director Fernando Meirelles (The Two Popes) helms every episode, not able to save the material or elevate it in any way. Sugar begins drinking expensive whiskey at a bar, his alcohol intake not affecting his level of inebriation as the series will explain soon after. As Sugar is looking into the disappearance of Olivia, running into people like her actor half brother, David (Nate Corddry), that make the investigation more difficult. He meets Melanie (Academy Award nominee Amy Ryan) at a bar before taking her home and ignoring her drunken advances before tucking her in for the night, later discovering that she’s Olivia’s stepmother and could lead him to finding her quicker. The pilot is an introduction that might sound scattered, and it is. It doesn’t feel like the series knows what it wants to be, other than smashing as many classic noir tropes and devices as possible into each episode. 

The episodes feel a bit underwhelming, all short enough to be engaging but also a feeling of lengthiness shrouding the possible impact each is attempting to have. Sugar utilizes a voiceover from the titular character to theorize the probabilities of different situations, rationalize his own thoughts of going against Ruby’s wishes, and wax poetic about the nostalgias of life over a black and white pan across the streets of LA. Even at a short eight episodes, the series feels monotonous with many superfluous moments, the splicing of classic film noir clips from The Big Heat and more into the show becoming less effective each time it happens after the halfway point. The episodes feel disjointed, not fully realized as individual installments of a whole story but just segments of the story that don’t have their own distinct piece to give purpose to each. Some of the episodes feel unnecessary, even making parties feel like a chore, ones where other characters are introduced to help shape the narrative but only provide a shallow understanding of other plot points in the show through casual conversation. Red herrings run amuck on Sugar as the series attempts to steer the mystery a little too hard, an almost distracting amount of trickery happening to keep the audience guessing. For the most part, these characters just get in Sugar’s way as he looks for Olivia. In true crime drama/noir fashion, anything that could possibly get in Sugar’s way manages to do so, and instead of creating any tension with this, the series allows Sugar to push through with ease in almost every instance.

While most of the series doesn’t add up together to create something cohesive, the performances elevate much of what’s happening in Sugar. Colin Farrell is terrific as the titular leading man, someone who searches for both people and meaning with an inherent kindness rooted in sincerity, bringing a warmth to a character that could have been received as stale. A scene in the pilot with Sugar helping a homeless man and his dog, not only offering him money but proceeding to guide him towards a better future by reconnecting him with his sister in Milwaukee, to start fresh and be off the streets. It’s a performance that makes the series better, even tolerable in its lowest points, as Farrell exudes confidence in the role. Amy Ryan, always a thrill to see, is also great as Melanie, bringing some of her Gone Baby Gone chops to the opening episode that finds her drinking too much and stumbling around. In the streaming era, Ryan is widely known for her role as Holly Flack on The Office and more recently on Only Murders in the Building, so hopefully audiences will engage with her more dramatic work such as this to see how well rounded she is as an actress. She instantly makes scenes better as Melanie, a woman who’s having a hard time when she meets Sugar, having been sober for many years up until a couple weeks before meeting him. The two meld together well and create a bond that fits the series, even in the more erratic moments. They handle the fast dialogue with ease, a little bit better than Kirby does as Ruby, who does fine but isn’t able to craft any real dimension out of her character. It’s almost a one-note performance of constant disappointment in Sugar’s decisions, perhaps due to the writing but not able to be saved by the actress. Her existence in the series feels like an inclusion to have someone attempting to talk Sugar out of his plans. It doesn’t add much but length to the runtime of each episode, so some of their scenes have a stale feeling.

AppleTV+ has found success in its original stories, specifically Ted Lasso and Severance, but the streamer’s newest attempt in original programming doesn’t bring the same freshness that their other hits have. Sugar is a series that wants to pay tribute to noir, with the issue being that the show wants to give time to everything the genre has ever done, complete with actual clips from old noirs spliced into the episodes. Without the lead performance from Colin Farrell that grounds the series, even in its strangest moments, the story would fall flat and would only entice viewers to keep away from the newest episodes. A tribute to noir that finds itself muddled in its praise of the genre while making some of the weirdest narrative choices of the year, Sugar might leave a sour taste in your mouth. 

Grade: C+

AppleTV+ will premiere the first two episodes of Sugar on April 5 with six more new episodes weekly every Friday.

Tyler Doster

Tyler is the TV Awards Editor for AwardsWatch and from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He’s been obsessed with movies and the oscars since he was about 14. He enjoys reading, but even more, talking about Amy Adams more and will, at any given moment, bring up her Oscar snub for Arrival. The only thing he spends more time on than watching TV is sitting on Twitter. If you ever want to discuss the movie Carol at length, he’s your guy. You can find Tyler at @wordswithtyler

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