3 out of 5 stars

John Sugar (Colin Farrell), a private eye, embodies every archetype of the detective genre. He’s a man who dislikes hurting people, yet frequently finds himself doing so. He speaks a remarkable number of languages and seemingly possesses an immunity to drunkenness, even after downing 50 shots. Smooth yet lethal, violent yet soulful, he’s a complex character. Farrell is the ideal actor for the role, someone equally believable as a tragic leading hero and a lethal assassin.

Sugar is brought back to Los Angeles despite his physical and psychological condition being less than ideal. He’s desperate to take a new case, despite the concerns of his handler, Ruby (Killing Eve star Kirby Howell-Baptiste).

Sugar’s case concerns the disappearance of Olivia Siegel (Don’t Worry Darling‘s Sydney Chandler), granddaughter of big-time Hollywood producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell). Her father, Bernie (Better Call Saul’s Dennis Boutsikaris), seems less concerned by her disappearance, fairly certain his addict offspring will reappear in rehab soon. Meanwhile, Olivia’s former child star half-brother David (For All Mankind’s Nate Corddry) is too preoccupied with reviving his career to help Sugar with her case.

The first half of Sugar follows the eponymous character as he drives around L.A. interviewing people connected to the Siegel family. Most notable is Melanie (Amy Ryan), a former rock star and Olivia’s former stepmother. A film aficionado, Sugar’s voiceover is interspersed with clips from Hollywood classics, including Touch of Evil (1958) and Gilda (1946). At times, it feels as though John Sugar is simply playing a role in his beloved genre of movies. With his impeccably tailored suits and convertible car, Sugar feels as though he is cosplaying his favourite 1930s detectives in the modern-day.

The show crams a lot of different storylines into its short runtime. Sugar soon uncovers a web of Hollywood secrets that the Siegel family doesn’t want to be released into the world. These secrets are so dark that some family members hire dangerous people to throw the detective off the scent.

The plot then takes another peculiar turn, introducing shadowy societies, an ornate mystery box, and unseen figures of authority. That’s not to mention John’s mysterious past and hand tremors. These elements would be intriguing if there weren’t quite so many to follow. The sheer number of mysteries can feel overwhelming for the viewer. So much is laid out and established that Sugar doesn’t have enough time to fully explore the resolutions.

The key issue with Sugar is that the central mystery isn’t intriguing enough to hold viewers’ attention. The dark Hollywood elements and family secrets hold more weight than the lost granddaughter, a clichéd party girl who’s gone missing. The show could have pushed its commentary on the entertainment industry further instead of trying to set up red herrings and introduce genre-bending twists.

Ultimately, audiences never learn enough about Olivia to truly care about her disappearance. Cromwell is a delight, channelling his on-screen Succession (2018-2023) sibling, Logan Roy. At its core, Sugar is a Succession-esque drama about a corrupt Hollywood dynasty, but this narrative is lost in its preoccupation with being a film noir pastiche.

Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) sizzles on screen despite being one of the show’s few well-rounded and well-written characters. Kirby’s Ruby exists solely to remind John to look after himself better, while also laying out clues for the show’s twist. This entirely wastes her comedic and dramatic talents. Jason Butler Harner (Ozark) brings warmth to the role of Eric Lange, an overly earnest anthropologist. The biggest mystery of Sugar is why they cast the 55-year-old Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as the mother of a man in his forties and then failed to utilise her immense talent effectively.

Sugar starts as a rather formulaic film noir, stylish and well-acted but not especially gripping. It eventually veers into something quite audacious, but unfortunately, it’s too little too late. For fans of Sugar’s film noir elements, the twist might prove unsatisfying, and for those who enjoy the later genre-bending aspects, the earlier sections may not have held their attention.

Mark Protosevich’s (I Am Legend) show peppers hints and clues about its true nature from the outset, but it demands a lot of audience attention for the payoff to be satisfying. At times, the screenplays feel as though they’re trying too hard to be ambiguous at the expense of telling a good story. Sugar might have worked better as a film instead of relying on the audience to keep pressing the ‘next episode’ button.

References to John Sugar’s past are peppered throughout the dialogue, hinting at stories of absent siblings and lost loves. Protosevich plays with the preconceived notion of a professional detective character seeking justice to overcome their troubled past. It’s always clear that something else is amiss, but few audiences will be able to spot the twist.

Sugar either needed to have chosen to be the detective drama about the hard-boiled private investigator obsessed with old Hollywood glamour, or the series that the twist reveals it to truly be. Unfortunately, the show causes whiplash by trying to be too many things at once.

USA | 2024 | 8 EPISODES | 16:9 HD | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: Mark Protosevich, David Rosen, Donald Joh & Sam Catlin.
director: Fernando Meirelles.
starring: Colin Farrell, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Amy Ryan, Dennis Boutsikaris, Alex Hernandez, Lindsay Pulsipher, Anna Gunn, James Cromwell, Nate Corddry, Sydney Chandler, Miguel Sandoval, Jason Butler Harner, Massi Furlan & Adrian Martinez.