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Friday, May 24th, 2024  

Sugar

Apple TV+, April 5, 2024

Apr 05, 2024 Photography by Apple TV+ Web Exclusive
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Colin Farrell joins the pantheon of time honored gumshoes with Sugar, which premieres with two episodes on this new series. The leading man’s eponymous John Sugar is a private investigator with quips hard boiled enough to satisfy the cravings of any noir diehard. All the more impressive, creator and co-writer of most of the episodes Mark Protosevich (also a veteran screenwriter of The Cell, Thor and the American remake of Oldboy) immerses Sugar in a modern setting that puts a fresh spin on detective tropes. Director Fernando Meirelles (the visionary behind City of God) shoots scenes so painterly they should adorn gallery walls. Some of Sugar’s best writing and acting seems almost tossed off, like when this quickly indelible P.I. wryly winces while uttering the word, “Yakuza,” to one of his marks during a job in Tokyo that opens the series. Shot in black and white shades as pristine as the protagonist’s tuxedo, the scene features both Sugar’s clever banter and equally nimble fighting skills, as he wins a knife fight and gripes about his sports coat getting slit.

Sugar returns to his L.A. stomping grounds, where his handler Ruby (Kirby Howell-Baptiste; Killing Eve, Barry) tries to convince him to take a break after the Tokyo job. She’s right to be concerned, because Sugar suffers from intermittent but painful spasms in his arm, one of the series’ many ominous mysteries. But R&R is the last thing on this P.I.’s mind. The granddaughter of Jonathan Siegel, a legendary movie producer, has gone missing, and he has sought out Sugar to find her. Sugar doesn’t just think he’s the man for the job— he also can’t pass up the opportunity to chat with this Hollywood insider, because he’s an obsessive cinephile. That producer is played by the king of character actors, James Cromwell, who gives a wisened performance that ranks among his head turning recent guest spot on Succession or even his Oscar winning part in Babe. Here, Cromwell’s Siegel is soft spoken but doesn’t mince words while describing his disdain for his son and grandson, who he’s certain are involved in granddaughter Olivia’s disappearance. There’s an instant, easy warmth in Cromwell and Farrell’s exchanges, making their dialogue go down smooth even though it doubles as exposition that’d grow dull if uttered by lesser actors.

Before long, Sugar is tracking down clues that lead to an even grimmer picture than what Cromwell hinted at. All the while, this P.I. shows mastery of his craft as he doggedly investigates. What’s more: Protosevich’s script undercuts detective tropes with the kind of modern tech that many of today’s mysteries avoid (see the critics that gripe about True Detective plot twists being avoidable if characters had used a cell phone). Sugar flashes photos on his phone to interviewees as if he’s unveiling a detective’s badge. He also pinpoints a lead via car GPS, then uses that knowledge to let interviewees know they’re lying to him.

At times, it seems like there’s nothing Sugar can’t do. Seeing him speak Japanese in the opening scenes would be impressive enough, that is, until he busts out even tougher to pronounce fluent Arabic to his Lyft driver in L.A. When he finds out that that driver needs a favor, Sugar quickly leverages his skills and connections to help him out, and his do-gooder nature is made clearer in a later scene when he helps out a homeless man and adopts his dog. But Sugar is an even bigger sweetheart while trying to glean information from a key source, Olivia’s aunt Melanie. Played with galling vulnerability by prestige TV all star Amy Ryan (The Wire, Gone Baby Gone), the recovering alcoholic Melanie is falling off the wagon when Sugar happens upon her, and yet he politely refuses her drunken advances and makes sure she gets home safe.

Sugar may appear to be perfect, but he’s actually pretty square. He shares Melanie’s taste for booze but can only savor the flavors, because no amount of alcohol makes him drunk. When one interviewee offhandedly mentions how another character “bought home a new guy every night. You know how it is” Sugar then retorts that no, he doesn’t have any idea how that is, speaking multitudes about his slowly emerging choirboy tendencies. It seems his only vice is vintage films, scenes of which are suddenly sprinkled into the series even when he’s not spending the afternoon at a matinee, as if the twists in the plot (which Protosevich wrote as homages) remind him of his favorite classic mysteries.

Meirelles makes the most of today’s cinematic technology, shooting many scenes with such searing digital flair they’ll be scorched on your mind’s eye more than the palpable heat of Sugar’s L.A. setting. Indeed, Sugar’s frequently bleached camera exposure immerses viewers in its sticky summer ambiance more than any film or series since Chinatown— a prior innovative noir with a charismatic lead in Jack Nicholson and star director Roman Polanski that this show is a worthy successor of.

But part of what makes Sugar such a coup is not only how it lives up to and pays homage to its forebearers, but also how Meirelles sets its aesthetics apart. Aside from ensuring even the most perfunctory scenes look luscious, he also constructs some of the most boldly artful shots of the prestige TV era in these first two episodes. When Sugar climbs behind the wheel of a 1963 Corvette convertible, Meirelles shoots the car from above in loving slow motion and absorbing color saturations. Thanks to those visuals and a soothing score, the scene is less reminiscent of taking an old beaut out for a spin than sinking into a warm bath, conveying nostalgia for an era that Sugar wasn’t alive for, but whose glamor clearly makes him pine.

The second episode also has a number of evocatively shot scenes. But the character development on this episode (which runs ten minutes shorter than the premiere) is equally effective. This is especially true of Ryan’s Melanie, who Sugar follows to an AA meeting. Her humiliating drunken advance on the P.I., and subsequent rejection, not only lands her back on the wagon but also compels her to speak frankly to her fellow addicts. It’s deeply moving not only because of flashbacks to that morning when her character dumps out all her booze, but also Ryan’s delivery of lines like “We’ve been hurt in the past, and don’t want to get hurt again. So we get fucked up.” Better still: when she admits that Sugar’s gentlemanliness, rather than taking advantage of her, made “Me feel like I deserve a second chance,” she says, her voice cracking.

So compelling are these moments throughout the premiere and much of Episode Two that the closing moments of the latter are baffling. The exposition dump via voice over at the end would be worth an eye roll on any show half as good as this. Why would Sugar stoop to that after such a sterling first two hours that amount to the strongest TV opening in recent memory? Even if Sugar flies straight off the rails, it won’t matter. Misses are part of exciting big swings like this. But I have a hunch that the daring talents behind this series will continue to pull off feats throughout the remaining six episodes. Humphrey Bogart, eat your heart out. (www.tv.apple.com/us/show/sugar/)

Author rating: 8/10

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