Apple TV+’s Sugar Checks Some Noir Boxes but Falls Short of Greatness

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Apple TV+’s Sugar Checks Some Noir Boxes but Falls Short of Greatness

It’s a reality of film and TV that a small set of great actors elevate a product to some minimum level just by the fact of their presence. There aren’t many of them, but Colin Farrell is one, and having him attached means a lot. It might theoretically be possible to make a bad TV show or a bad movie with Farrell as a star, but it would take incredible effort. There’s so much magnetism, so much substance and gravitas to the guy, that the sheer talent keeps the production above a certain threshold. It’s also a reality that no actor is good enough on his own to overcome fatal flaws; bad is bad, and if the writing and direction can’t deliver on their end of the bargain, the shortcomings will drag a great actor down before they can lift them up.

Sugar, the new L.A. noir show from Apple TV+, falls in a kind of shadow zone. Nothing about it is overtly bad—or, almost nothing—and Farrell is typically captivating as John Sugar, a man whose sole expertise is finding missing people for the rich and powerful. You want to watch him ply his trade, and he fully embodies a character whose unnatural empathy constantly conflicts with the necessity of violence and pain in the dark world he inhabits. The show, unfortunately, falls mostly flat around him, despite the fact that as a viewer you’re desperate for it to reach Farrell’s level. It’s that most tantalizing of shows—one that you feel should be good, that has you constantly leaning in expecting it to be good, but just never quite gets there. In other words, it’s a tease; it takes you a while to quit, but by the third or fourth episode, you start to realize there’s no heart.

The explanation is pretty simple, and it has nothing to do with the supporting players. From Amy Ryan as a recovering alcoholic tied up in a murder and disappearance to James Cromwell as a dying bigwig producer to Dennis Boutsikaris as his sordid son, there are good performances here. Even Kirby Howell-Baptiste, whose role as Sugar’s handler feels entirely superfluous, does her best in a meaningless role. Problem is, the mystery just isn’t very good, which is a reflection of the writing. There’s nothing to grab you, and as the drama around a young girl’s disappearance unfolds, you find yourself just not caring. Director Fernando Meirelles, famous for City of God, has a few tricks up his sleeve, and the disjointed narration and switches to black-and-white are often interesting in their attempt to depict Sugar’s vacillating mental state, but they can’t make up for a rough script.

Sugar is the latest example of the old truism that, in genres like mystery and noir, you can’t really survive a bad story. Plot is the be-all and end-all, and you can’t act or direct your way out of failure in that domain. The narrative is the bedrock that can be elevated by brilliance in those other roles, but if the bedrock is missing, there’s nothing to stand on, no purchase to be had, and the experience of watching becomes a slog.

The best way to diagnose the shortcomings in Sugar is to watch closely as the writers try to imbue Farrell with humanity that the nature of his job should strip away. In the opening scene, he tells a man who kidnapped a boy that he doesn’t want to hurt him, just before breaking his arm. On the streets of L.A., he befriends a homeless man and his dog for no discernible reason, and then cares unduly when the man meets a bad fate. It’s pointless sympathy-building, when the audience doesn’t even want it; we’re not stupid, and we know that a person in Sugar’s position is going to be, on some level, hardened to the ugly realities of the world. That’s been true of noir heroes forever—it’s practically a cliche of the genre—and it rings true to life, because that’s how it actually works. When you constantly bump up against the ugliest parts of human nature, and when you’re forced to commit acts of violence, you either break or you grow cold. And it’s the cold ones who desperately try to retain some sliver of humanity that end up fascinating; in contrast, Sugar’s puppy-eyed kindness in the intervals between brutal violence rings false and almost insulting, and it’s worse when they tack on superficial complications like a drug habit to confuse the picture. This never feels like a person who actually exists in his dark world.

For one reason or another, modern TV, and especially modern mystery, feels littered with what I think of as “almost” shows—the ones that have plenty of good ingredients, but never amount to something you’d want to tell your friends about, or even finish. Sugar is firmly in that camp, and is all the more frustrating because it wastes the phenomenal talent of its lead, its strong supporting cast, and its director. Once again, a show with great potential has succumbed to the fatal disease we can call EBTW: everything but the writing.

Sugar is now streaming on Apple TV+. 

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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

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