‘Sugar’ Recap, Episode 1: ‘Olivia’

‘Sugar’ Recap, Episode 1: ‘Olivia’

Sugar

Olivia

Season 1

Episode 1

Editor’s Rating

3 stars

Photo: Apple TV+

The lost finding the lost. What’s a hard-boiled detective story if not that? Every case is the case: one lost soul hired to solve the mystery of another. If you’re a movie buff like me or John Sugar (Colin Farrell), and you’ve spent enough time in Los Angeles, chances are you’ve driven past some Hollywood landmark or another and found yourself caught between the real world and the movie world, if only for the briefest of moments. You pass through these spaces and are met with a hundred cinematic associations and emotions at once. The many faces of the American Dream life. Are these clues? Do they lead to a deeper understanding of who we are in this life? Who we’re not?

John Sugar is a film addict and private investigator. His words, not mine. And it’s clear from Sugar’s gorgeous black-and-white in media res opening that our point of view is deeply rooted in our narrating detective’s movie-addled subjective reality. We open in Tokyo, where Sugar rescues a yakuza boss’s kidnapped son like James Bond crashing through a Kurosawa film (he even manages to leave with a well-placed Daniel Craig bicep wound and a neat little tear in his Savile Row suit). “I don’t like hurting people, it’s true,” Sugar says in voice-over. “This world has more than enough suffering without extra contributions from me. Finding people that are lost, bringing them back to those that miss them. That part of the job I like.”

In a flash, we’re back in Los Angeles, and Mark Protosevich and Fernando Meirelles’s off-kilter neo-noir begins in earnest. En route to his next appointment, Sugar casually picks up on his driver’s phone conversation (in Arabic). “Many years ago, I spent time in Damascus,” he tells the driver. At the drop-off point, he gives the driver the name of a doctor who will take care of his daughter. A jaded gumshoe Sugar is decidedly not — instead taking a “tall, dark, and handsome with a heart of pure gold” cue from the likes of Dr. Richard Kimble and other square-jawed put-upon Boy Scout heroes from ’60s–’70s television and taking every opportunity to do a good deed, leaving a net-positive mark on the world.

Now he’s at the home of Jonathan Siegel (James Cromwell, always a welcome prestige-TV presence), a legendary Hollywood producer pitched to the tune of John Huston in Chinatown. “So you’re a film buff?” Siegel asks rhetorically. He’s more interested in John’s day job. Word on the street is that John Sugar does “one thing and one thing only: find the missing for people who value discretion.” Our central case is Siegel’s granddaughter Olivia (Sydney Chandler), 25. She’s been missing two weeks now, not necessarily out of the ordinary. Olivia has had drug problems and is no stranger to vanishing for days, weeks, even months. But she’d always called her grandfather for money in the past. This time, there’s been no sign of her.

“Well, that’s his problem,” says Ruby (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Sugar’s “handler” and something of a den mother to a mysterious group to which they both belong. See, Sugar was supposed to report to Ruby immediately on arrival back in L.A., but he took Siegel’s invitation instead. “When a client reaches out to you directly, it’s disrespectful,” she reminds him. “You’re my business.” Not to mention, they’d agreed that when Sugar got back to Tokyo, he’d take a much-needed break. But the case brought forth an itch he had to scratch. “It’s this girl,” he says. “She reminds me of Jen.” He means it, and dropping that name is enough to win Ruby over. She accepts the case and whips all the essentials Sugar needs out of a nondescript drawer: renewed California private investigator license, driver’s license, and a concealed-carry permit for the gun Glenn Ford used in The Big Heat. Like John Sugar, I’m not much for guns in real life, but put Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum from Dirty Harry in my hand, and I’ll be peacocking with that thing all day.

Sugar heads out from Ruby’s in his freshly uncovered, baby-blue vintage Corvette. His next stop: Olivia’s condo. No one there, and surveillance footage from the garage indicates her car hasn’t moved in the two weeks she’s been missing. From the looks of the place, Olivia wasn’t planning on being gone this long. Enter her older brother (half-brother, as he soon points out) David Siegel (Nate Corddry), child star turned struggling adult nepo baby. He’s arrived unexpectedly with an armed buddy, Kenny (Alex Hernandez). Sugar calms the nervous pair down pretty quickly and identifies himself as working for David’s granddad. But what’s David doing here? He’s supposed to check in on the place every day to see if Olivia’s back, or so he claims. He’s there on behalf of his father, Bernie, who also has a key to the condo. “I don’t know how much you know about Olivia, but once a junkie, always a junkie,” David tells Sugar.

“You’re a terrible liar, Davie,” Sugar responds. “Maybe the worst liar ever.” But he doesn’t press the issue. David and Kenny leave, and Sugar finds Olivia’s luggage, which does not have much in it except pictures and clippings of Olivia’s late mother, actress Rachel Kaye. He also finds a photo-booth set of Olivia and Melanie Matthews (Amy Ryan), Olivia’s former stepmom and a legendary rock star in her own right. Melanie isn’t home, so the bar from the picture, the Step-Hi, is Sugar’s next stop.

Ryan is one of the most prolific and dynamite character actors of the last 20 years, and right away she brings a lively mix of pathos, humor, and gracious vulnerability to this aging rock-star characterization. You’re drawn to her the second you see her throwing out a quick croon to the jukebox from the bar. Sugar rolls up to the bar with a touch of Sterling Hayden swagger (my favorite old-movie-clip insert thus far has been Hayden in classic western mode, slammin’ a shot o’ whiskey like it might be his last), offers to buy Melanie another $100 shot of single-barrel bourbon, and orders one for himself. “I usually drink Scotch, but this could change things,” he says, sparking a conversation about rye and the romance of drinking and sci-fi movies.

Several drinks later, Melanie’s sloshed and Sugar’s doing just fine. “My body processes alcohol at a rate 50 times faster than normal.” From any other private detective, that’d sound like a put-on for “I hold my liquor well.” But Sugar seems like he really means it. His eyes are sharp and still beaming with empathy. Even a drunk Melanie proves a formidable interlocutor, though. She reads this cat like a book: “There’s more to you than meets the eye. You have secrets, and you keep things secret.” Sugar takes Melanie home, where she offers him another drink and the option to stay the night with her (apparently, Virgos and Tauruses are very sexually compatible). Not going to learn much from Melanie tonight, other than what she’s shown us about Sugar and how he moves among the haunted populace of L.A. “You choose to be alone,” she tells him. “But there’s hope for you yet, John Sugar.”

Sugar takes advantage of the late hour and breaks into Olivia’s car to see if her past movements provide any answers. Lo and behold, there’s a dead body in her trunk. Thankfully, it’s not Olivia’s, but the plot is thickening fast. Sugar marvels at how accustomed he’s become to the violence of this world after all this time. What does that say about he is? Who he isn’t?

Back home at the Del Corazon hotel, Sugar gets a room-service dinner and a party invite from Société Polyglotte Cosmopolitaine, his and Ruby’s mysterious secret club. It’ll be good to see everyone, I guess, Sugar thinks. So why he so often avoids “the others” is a question one could ask. He combs over clues from Olivia’s luggage, watches a tape of Rachel Kaye, and then finds a video of Olivia doing the same monologue. The bleeding starts when he finds some old, mildly compromising Polaroids of Kaye. Sugar passes out in the shower, then wakes up to find he hasn’t actually bled from his arm at all. It’s still wrapped up, and his shirt is all white and in a pile on the floor. As he falls asleep on his bed, having just injected himself with something from a strange crystalline syringe, all those images from the movies he loves are replaced with images of Olivia. Accepting these cases has triggered some weird events, both externally and internally. But the missing have been identified. Now is the time to find them.

• Hey, it’s your humble noir recapper, fresh off a stint with Tokyo Vice and back in sunny L.A. for a sleek, hard-boiled detective joint. Even I didn’t know how comically in the bag I would be for this series when I took the assignment. Practically had to ask myself if I had hallucinated the show when it started in Tokyo in black-and-white, then shifted to color with a neon flash of “007” across the screen. But, listen, I’m coming into this thing with a head full of cinematic clues from which we can draw some usable intel, both in thematic and boots-on-the-ground narrative terms, and ultimately see how Sugar holds up as a pristine piece of neo-noir.

• “You’re a good man, Karl.” Sugar’s most warmly felt Good Samaritan side quest of the week: treating unhoused Karl and his dog Wiley like human beings. Wiley, in particular, seemed to make some sort of extrapsychic connection with Sugar. Colin Farrell couldn’t be more perfectly cast to imbue this character with a warmth and supernatural connection while also being cool as hell. As he’s playing it, a guy who loves the seedy noirs of yesteryear while giving mad Clark Kent is a totally buyable and intriguing notion (where it could’ve come off as merely trite or one-note).

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