Sugar Review

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Be wary of the underbelly that lies beneath Sugar’s slick Los Angeles-set crime and deception story. With a team of sci-fi veterans composed of Mark Protosevich, Simon Kinberg and Fernando Meirelles, who is best known for City of God (a gritty crime drama) and Blindness (a plague-of-sense-deprivation thriller), this detective noir feels offbeat. This big swing pays off with one of prestige streaming TV’s most insane twists in recent years – but does the high-stake gamble that seems to be aimed at securing another season make sense?

The protagonist is named John Sugar (Colin Farrell), which is quite amusing since he embodies all the characteristics of a typical detective with a heart made out of gold. The first time we see him, Sugar is dressed entirely in black and white just after completing a job for Japan’s Yakuza. Throughout the entire series, Sugar informs the audience that he doesn’t enjoy inflicting pain on people. What you ask? Well done suits, reuniting loved ones and movies like no other.

So much so that upon his return to sunny L.A., Sugar picks up Sight & Sound, Cahiers du Cinema, American Cinematheque from his handler Ruby (Kirby). The gun he eventually agrees to take up was Glenn Ford’s in The Big Heat. Like Elizabeth Taylor or Marilyn Monroe, Sugar prefers hotel living with its invaluable luxuries and has found shelter in a stylish cottage. He drives an old Corvette similar to Mike Hammer’s car from Kiss Me Deadly which placed him among top-rated investigators from yesteryears such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe; therefore it would be difficult for him to turn down Jonathan Siegel who enlists him help find Olivia (Sydney Chandler) his lost granddaughter.

Ruby does not recommend taking on the case: You should probably look into this hand tremor, she says. Have you called the doctor yet, she asks – dots you don’t need a PI’s license to connect. Nevertheless, Sugar cannot help himself as Olivia reminds him of his sister and of wounds that will never heal. And it is this grief that Farrell keeps so close to his chest that makes his performance so gripping. The detective who has spent his life drowning in the agony of an open question knows intrinsically he can only find one thing to soothe this kind of pain. What is more, Farrell skillfully combines Sugar’s soothingly restrained mannerisms with an inner sadness that is harder to explain since it is from an immense yearning which forms intricate part of Protosevich’s creation through silence

Alas, an art to hinting at a major disclosure, some of which is by keeping an interesting story that leads up to the twist. This is where Sugar flounders, with the secret narrowing the scope for what can be covered in its first season. The all-star cast become victims of shallow supporting characters who parade through their lives: Emmy winner Anna Gunn plays Olivia’s overly cloying mother for her babylike half-brother who is kind of too old to act like he does but perhaps young enough for Nate Corddry to play. The Siegel family finally sees character actor Dennis Boutsikaris rounding it out as Bernie, the frustrated producer who has been condemned never to live up to his family’s legacy.

Sugar’s funniest pairing has got to be Boutsikaris and Cromwell. The polished and towering screen legend hovering over his stunted son; two men trading petty attacks just so they don’t have to say out loud how much they regret all those things that were always known. However, this kind of understanding does not extend itself towards Ruby as she ushers Sugar in and out of her house as an anti-oracle – a non-enlightened being but rather a concealer. Amy Ryan also suffers from similar characterization constraints as (and Olivia’s stepmother) Melanie a former rock star turned activist. At first she seems like a possible love interest but there isn’t any chemistry between her and Farrell while she also doesn’t get many opportunities to step away from being the quirky sidekick.

Meirelles directed five episodes (Adan Arkin directs the other three) using handheld camera techniques opposed to noir elements. This technique has something discordant about it however it serves well in differentiating between John Sugar who public knows and the one detective hides from them through hard work on his part. Meirelles moves from wide shots of original John Vincent driving his baby blue Corvette on open roads of LA (maximum visibility) to framing him behind such things as doors, glasses and lights (physical reminders of his dishonesty).

The series is interspersed with clips from classic films like The Night of the Hunter, Vertigo, and Touch of Evil which illustrate how Sugar sees the world around him unspool like a movie. In a scene that blurs the line between “real world” and “reel world,” he sits in a packed theater as Gena Rowlands says “I think movies are a conspiracy.” (This line takes on greater weight with each passing episode.) At first this style switching is clever (and provides catnip for cinephiles in waiting), but then it becomes gimmicky through repetitious lack of focus – sometimes the clips speak to directly to the story; at other times they seem unrelated, keeping up appearances that only remind the viewer of all those great films they could be watching instead.

It’s disappointing when an expansive show like Sugar turns into a case study in style over substance. The disclosure happens too late for viewers not to drop off while leaving a bitter taste after one finishes watching it without any second season guarantee. This one feels way, way too risky from gambling perspective.

Final Decision

Driving down the LA streets with his baby blue Corvette’s roof open, to putting on immaculate fitting suits, Apple TV+’s version of a classic noir has Colin Farrell as the ultimate private eye in sophistication. However, Sugar blurs genres to such an extent that it ends up leaving one perplexed with this question: Should we rectify something that isn’t faulty?

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