TV: Sugar (Season 1)

Apple’s latest water-cooler series is Sugar, an immersive mystery that subverts familiar noir tropes even as it satisfyingly delivers the goods. John Sugar (Colin Farrell) is a private investigator specializing in missing persons cases. He’s pretty damn successful at it, too, having parlayed his gumshoe business into an opulent lifestyle influenced by his love of classic cinema. He comes to Los Angeles at the behest of legendary filmmaker Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell), whose granddaughter Olivia (Sydney Chandler) has disappeared. With the aid of his hacker-slash-manager Ruby (Kirby), Sugar dives into the case, an investigation entangling him with various and sundry LA characters, including a number of cynical Siegel family members. Among them, though, is Olivia’s stepmother Melanie (Amy Ryan), an ex-rock star with whom he develops a trusting rapport. As they work together to uncover the truth about the case, Sugar gradually begins to reveal truths about his own unusual life.

Sugar is a polished neo-noir that knows the genre backwards and forwards, even as it presents the genre’s antithetical protagonist. Farrell is extremely likeable here in a role that initially comes off like a classic international man of intrigue, too good to be true, but ends up subverting that archteype’s every toxic expectation. Sugar cares about people, and not just the people he’s trying to help, or save, but the random people he meets during the course of his days. As such, the character is used—by creator Mark Protosevich and directors Adam Arkin and Fernando Meirelles—as a window onto a dark, cynical genre from an unfamiliarly sunny angle, someone approaching the sordid and villainous from an unusually open-hearted perspective. Sugar’s heroism, and his winning relationship with Melanie, renders hopeful the bleak furniture of the noir conspiracy that drives the requisite, nefarious plot. Meanwhile, though, Sugar retains the compelling elements of noir, celebrating even as it subverts, providing the classic twists, atmosphere, and thoughtful, melodramatic narration. Finally, it possesses the classic rogue’s gallery of memorable suspects and witnesses and players, expertly brought to life here by the aforementioned as well as Dennis Boutsikaris, Nate Corddry, Anna Gunn, James Butler Harner, Eric Lange, Miguel Sandoval, and many more.

By now, anyone with an interest in pop culture and an eavesdropping smartphone has likely been spoiled on Sugar’s largest, most controversial twist, which I have labored not to spoil here. Suffice it to say, I understand why it’s polarizing, but for me it really worked—a well foreshadowed, thematically interesting structural build that opens up a whole other line of critical discussion. To a degree, the season finale feels like an anticlimactic outro—a creative hedge that might serve the story well if extended, but fails to put a a stirring punctuation mark on the sentence. But overall, Sugar is a uniquely gripping contraption that earns its moments with clever structure, capable performances, and a thought-provoking core.

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