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TV review: Engaging Colin Farrell drives addictive 'Sugar' mystery

Colin Farrell stars in "Sugar." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Colin Farrell stars in "Sugar." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

LOS ANGELES, March 27 (UPI) -- Mysteries are as compelling as the case itself, but a unique sleuth can make any mystery gripping. Sugar, premiering April 5 on Apple TV+, introduces a bold new genre protagonist in John Sugar.

Sugar (Colin Farrell) is a private investigator hired to find Olivia Siegel (Sydney Chandler). Olivia's father, Hollywood producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell), worries that the latest disappearance is more than one of her usual drug relapses.

So, Sugar investigates in Los Angeles, meeting Jonathan's son and former child star David (Nate Corddry) and singer Melanie (Amy Ryan). They lead Sugar to some dangerous Hollywood underground gangsters.

From Hercule Poirot to Benoit Blanc, or Columbo to Jessica Fletcher, charismatic investigators have made audiences root for them to uncover murder and other misdeeds.

Sugar is in the vein of classic Hollywood gumshoes, but with a suit and tie instead of a trenchcoat and fedora. Sugar also has a demeanor that stands out.

Colin Farrell plays private investigator John Sugar. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
Colin Farrell plays private investigator John Sugar. File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI

He has subtle, unobtrusive ways to get people to talk. His interviews seem like such natural conversations that many characters don't even know they're giving anything away.

David's parents (Dennis Boutsikaris and Anna Gunn) are less cooperative, but still unwittingly give up some useful intel to Sugar. With the more resistant suspects, Sugar simply can outfight them.

John Sugar (Colin Farrell) drives the streets of L.A. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
John Sugar (Colin Farrell) drives the streets of L.A. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

Competence plus compassion make Sugar a great character. He understands even the people who were not involved in Olivia's disappearance have pain of their own with which they're coping.

While listening to their traumatic stories, Sugar can keep his composure, yet remain empathetic. He also shows his compassion for Carl (John Beavers), an unhoused person he meets randomly, confirming that Sugar has no ulterior motives for helping people.

Sugar (Colin Farrell) meets Melanie (Amy Ryan) in a bar. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
Sugar (Colin Farrell) meets Melanie (Amy Ryan) in a bar. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

The subplot with Carl also shows how pragmatic Sugar is. He doesn't expect he can undo any circumstance that led to homelessness, but he encourages Carl to reconnect with family who could give him a place to stay while he gets back on his feet.

Sugar is a movie buff, so he thinks and talks about movies a lot while roaming around Los Angeles. The show balances real movies with the fictional ones that Jonathan produces and in which David stars.

Ruby (Kirby) assigns Sugar (Colin Farrell) the Siegel case. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+
Ruby (Kirby) assigns Sugar (Colin Farrell) the Siegel case. Photo courtesy of Apple TV+

The show goes a bit overboard in stylistically intercutting actual footage from classic movies. Many of the movies are so famous -- for example, Sunset Boulevard and The Thing -- that they distract you from the show.

Even if a viewer doesn't recognize the film, it is too jarring a departure from the modern-day story. It also compares unfavorably to the comedy Dream On, which inserted old clips to reveal its character's inner thoughts.

Some other shaky, off-kilter cinematography also is more obtrusive than evocative. The story and characters are strong enough that they don't require bells and whistles, and fortunately also strong enough to overcome those techniques.

After a longer pilot, most episodes run 34 to 36 minutes, which is a good length to introduce new clues and a bit more about Sugar's backstory each week. As demonstrated, Sugar is endearing enough to want to know more deeply as he solves the case.

The finale sets up a new mystery for a second season that would be quite a different milieu than the Hollywood mystery of Season 1. After eight episodes, Sugar becomes the reason to watch any case he takes on.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.