Sugar and the Shadowy History of L.A. Noir on the Small Screen

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Sugar and the Shadowy History of L.A. Noir on the Small Screen

Sugar, Apple TV+’s mysterious new crime drama, is steeped in film noir history, and especially films set in Los Angeles. L.A. is the definitive noir city because it’s sexy, dangerous, and full of disillusioned people with broken dreams. Some of the greatest noir films from every era of Hollywood—from The Big Sleep to Chinatown to Drive—are set in the City of Angels. 

Sugar stars Colin Farrell as John Sugar, a present-day private investigator who loves working in Los Angeles because he’s obsessed with movies. He subscribes to Cahiers du Cinema and Sight & Sound, and he’s starstruck when he takes a job working for movie producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell), whose granddaughter has gone missing. Sugar sees himself as an L.A. private eye in the image of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe. The show underlines Sugar’s noir obsession by cutting in footage from The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and other cinematic images of Los Angeles of yesteryear. The inserts create a feeling of living history, that the streets Sugar drives down are the same ones that belonged to Bogey and Bacall. 

It’s a curious twist that Sugar, a TV show, pays homage to L.A. noir cinema. Because, while Sugar doesn’t actually acknowledge the small screen in its big screen references, the series also exists as part of a long lineage of L.A. noir television. L.A. noir TV is much less distinguished and historically significant than its theatrical counterpart. But as a genre, its appeal is so irresistible that producers have been trying to capture it on television for decades.

The earliest show that can be considered L.A. noir is 77 Sunset Strip, which ran from 1958 to 1964 and was one of the most popular shows of its era. It stars Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith as private detectives investigating cases in Hollywood. Though it started out as a grittier crime drama in the vein of New York-set Naked City, which premiered two weeks earlier, it evolved into a lighter show featuring Edd Byrnes as Kookie, a jive-talking hepcat who worked as the building’s parking lot attendant before eventually becoming a P.I. himself. It’s pretty far from The Big Sleep, but it established the Los Angeles private investigator as a lasting TV archetype. 

Private eyes were huge on TV in the 1970s and 1980s, and there were a ton of shows about detectives-for-hire in Los Angeles. Some are fondly remembered (Mannix, Moonlighting), and some have faded to obscurity (City of Angels, Harry O). The most enduring noirish one is The Rockford Files, which stars James Garner (who had previously starred in an early attempt to revive Philip Marlowe, 1969’s Marlowe) as Jim Rockford, a perpetually down-on-his-luck cold case P.I. Rockford lives in a junky old trailer on the beach in Malibu and spends his days solving crimes and ducking creditors. He’s not as cynical as Philip Marlowe, but he’s good with a one-liner and is willing to bend the rules to achieve his goals. Like John Sugar, Rockford is a friendly guy who dislikes hurting people, and each series leans into their humanity. 

L.A. noir TV receded in the 1990s, but came back in a big way in the antihero era of the early 2000s with The Shield, FX’s classic crime drama about corrupt LAPD officer Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). Cable’s willingness to embrace darker and grittier material than had previously been seen on TV allowed The Shield’s noir themes of moral ambiguity and institutional rot to reach their fullest potential. The Shield is the most creatively successful noir-influenced TV show set in Los Angeles. If it were about a private eye, it would be the perfect L.A. noir show. 

Since The Shield, there have been a number of entries into this underrated genre, most of which haven’t quite succeeded—with the notable exception of Prime Video’s cop thriller Bosch, which has been a reliably gritty drama across two different series since 2014; in Bosch: Legacy, Det. Harry Bosch (Titus Welliver) even becomes a P.I.

One of the most ambitious shows was Mob City, which ran for one season on TNT in 2013. Mob City is a based-on-a-true-story period piece about the battle between the LAPD and the mafia in the 1940s. Despite having an accomplished creator in The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabont, a high-caliber cast led by Jon Bernthal and Milo Ventimiglia, and top-of-the-line production design, the show didn’t become a hit, perhaps because, in its execution, it feels more like an overly familiar noir tribute than a fresh take on the genre. (A decade later, HBO’s 1930s-set Perry Mason met a similar fate.)

In the past decade, there have been a handful of bold neo-noir series that didn’t catch on. Colin Farrell’s first attempt at L.A. noir, True Detective Season 2, alienated audiences in the summer of 2015 by attempting to tell a Chinatown-esque story in the most incomprehensible way possible. Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn returned to the genre for the 2019 limited series Too Old to Die Young, which stars Miles Teller as a homicide detective who moonlights as a vigilante. It’s an extraordinary show that mercilessly attacks the heart of darkness of Trump-era America, but it’s simply too weird for mainstream popularity. Brand New Cherry Flavor, a horror-noir hybrid from 2021 starring Rosa Salazar as an aspiring director seeking revenge on a producer who wronged her, similarly leans too weird for primetime. (Sugar is also technically a genre hybrid, but you’ll have to keep watching to find out how.)

There have also been two unsuccessful attempts to turn L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy’s 1950s-set novel that inspired the widely revered, Oscar-winning 1997 film of the same name, into a show. The first was in 2003, with Kiefer Sutheland. But it’s the 2018 CBS pilot with Walton Goggins that has taken on a mythical status among crime drama fans as a show that got away

With more misses than hits gracing our screens over the decades in this storied genre, it makes sense that Sugar is a tribute to noir cinema, not noir TV. But don’t count noir TV out as inherently inferior. There’s no reason TV can’t have a Chinatown or L.A. Confidential equivalent. It just hasn’t happened yet. Sugar is not that show, but someone might still make it. As long as Hollywood has a dark side, L.A. noir will remain a viable genre. 

Liam Mathews is a writer and editor. He has written for TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, Polygon, and many others. He’s the creator of Dad Shows. Follow him @liamaathews.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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