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Colin Farrell Shines In Apple TV+’s Refined and Genre-Bending Sugar

When we are first introduced to John Sugar (Colin Farrell), he relays that he doesn’t “like hurting people.” It’s during an early act of violence that he utters this, and he continues to relay this fact throughout different episodes, often before he uses his body to inflict pain upon another person. While it’s not something he does often–even going out of his way to avoid harming people–sometimes it becomes necessary. With each guilt-ridden admission, we are forced to consider that maybe the John Sugar we know isn’t actually a truthful portrayal of who the man really is.

While “Sugar” begins in the same vein as many of its predecessors, it quickly becomes apparent that what we’re watching is something special. Detective stories are older than television itself, and with series like “True Detective” and “Perry Mason” what this genre needs to survive is something wholly unique, whether that be character arcs or the twists and turns these series make. Here, the inspirations are glaringly apparent, but they’re crafted in a way that elevates the show's material, and its characters. The creators know that following a detective can only be so engrossing, and here, the mystery at hand and the people who become entangled in it, aid in a show that feels destined for greatness. 

The series follows the titular private detective, who after finishing an assignment in Tokyo, is hired to find the missing granddaughter of enigmatic Hollywood producer Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell). As he attempts to uncover her mysterious disappearance, the private investigator begins unearthing family secrets that were never meant to be uncovered, propelling him and the Siegel family into a downward spiral. From his own omissions when he narrates to the viewer, to the never-ending hoops he has to jump through to complete this mission, John Sugar is a man cloaked in secrecy. Eventually, these secrets may bury him. 

As the series expands, it becomes apparent that “Sugar” is a story about violence. Not only does John hate using it, he’s trapped in a profession that essentially demands it. To get to the bottom of the mystery he’s trying to uncover, John has to use his body to get what he wants, putting it through the ringer until he often succumbs to panic attacks. For most of the series, John’s disposition is unlike most of the people we see him interacting with. He’s kind–sometimes worryingly so–and takes his job more personally than a man in this profession should.

At times, John’s kindness is so startlingly disarming that you can't help but wonder if it's either a facade or a way for him to make up for guilt he harbors from a past case. From the first episode, we see how John makes connections with people associated to the case at hand, and just regular everyday people as well. It’s one of the most intriguing aspects of his character, despite the fact that it’s a troubling aspect as well. For a seasoned private detective, he’s quite awful at separating work from his personal life, and he continues to get too deep into the lives of those around him, no matter how short lived these connections are.

In a narration about halfway through the season, John tells the audience that “...when it comes to people, I still have a lot to learn.” His faith in humanity serves as an immovable obstacle that finds itself in his way time-and-time again, blocking him from not only completing his mission at times, but from healing from past missions as well. As he gets further entangled in the secrets of the Siegel family, John’s resolve begins to crack, forcing him and the viewer to consider that this may be the case that fractures him for good. Farrell’s portrayal of John allows these stakes to make “Sugar” feel like a series that has been airing for years, forcing us to become attached to its titular character almost immediately. His charisma ignites like a spark right with his introduction, and only grows stronger as the episodes unfold. 

There’s a genre-bending twist that occurs about halfway through the season that makes the show's splicing and intercutting of various Hollywood films clearer, but one that also cracks open its other inspirations as well. While it feels a bit jarring, it's undoubtedly one of the most interesting twists seen on television since the final season of “Succession.” It recontextualizes everything the viewer has previously seen, inviting an immediate rewatch of earlier episodes to try and find clues that had been laid out to the previously unassuming eye.

If you aren't already enamored with the show, this twist will have you on the edge of your seat, for better or worse. From this singular reveal to the ensemble of enticing characters, “Sugar” feels like a show that is destined for success. Farrell’s performance is one of the best of the year, and hopefully he’s able to inhabit this character for many more seasons. The way the series and its titular character both struggle with ideas of violence, shame and complicity is enthralling from start to finish, and proves that while “Sugar” isn’t necessarily reinventing the genre, it's bending it to its will.

Whole season screened for review. Premieres on Apple TV+ on April 5th.

Kaiya Shunyata

Kaiya Shunyata is a freelance pop culture writer and academic based in Canada. They have written for RogerEbert.com, Xtra, Okayplayer, The Daily Beast, AltPress and more. 

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