‘Sugar’ spoons out strange surprises with Colin Farrell as an old-style detective

Breathing strange new life into an old genre, “Sugar” makes overt connections to the detective movies of the 1940s and ‘50s, casting Colin Farrell as a modern private eye with a case that drags him through the seamy underbelly of Hollywood. Yet even that description belies a series with unexpected twists, in a way that’s sure to be divisive but benefits from its genuine sense of surprise and discovery.

“I don’t like hurting people,” Farrell’s John Sugar, frequently narrating the story, muses early on, which doesn’t stop him from doing so quite efficiently when necessary.

After a quick introduction, characterizing him as both resourceful and a master of languages, Sugar gets approached by a movie mogul (James Cromwell) who is trying to find his missing granddaughter. The case leads the detective on an odyssey that consciously resembles an old Raymond Chandler story, the kind that might have starred Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum back in the day. (In his spare time Sugar watches old movies, an overt signal of the show’s inspirations.)

The search brings Sugar into contact with a splendid supporting cast that includes Amy Ryan, Kirby, Nate Corddry, Anna Gunn and Dennis Boutsikaris. Still, Farrell shoulders most of the load as a world-weary sort harboring a big secret.

Created by Mark Protosevich (other producers include Farrell and Simon Kinberg), the eight episodes generally run a little over 30 minutes each, conjuring the spare sense of the early black-and-white detective series that “Sugar” also emulates.

Tuning up for the upcoming Max reprisal of his “The Batman” role of the Penguin, Farrell turns Sugar into a compelling, mysterious figure. Those qualities somewhat eclipse the central question of the wayward young granddaughter, which primarily serves as an excuse to watch Sugar work – sifting through sleazy, Hollywood-style dirty laundry – without really needing to drive the narrative.

Granted, those who can identify the old-movie clips peppered throughout will likely enjoy “Sugar” more than someone who’s never seen “Double Indemnity” or other examples of film noir from that period. Even the uninitiated, though, should be drawn in by the moody atmosphere, enigmatic style and the show’s willingness to take risks in a way that rewards the audience’s patience.

Amid a deluge of streaming content, sometimes it’s a pleasure simply to come across something that manages to make the familiar seem original. “Sugar” isn’t flawless, but the sweetness of that sensation, to borrow from a certain old movie, feels like the stuff dreams are made of.

“Sugar” premieres April 5 on Apple TV+. (Disclosure: Lowry’s wife works for a division of Apple.)

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at