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As anthological TV premises go, “Bearded Bill Pullman Grimaces and Becomes Overinvested in a Murder Investigation” seems strange, but maybe not any stranger than “Midwestern Crime Dramas Loosely Based on Coen Brothers Movies” and “Whatever’s Creeping Ryan Murphy Out This October.”
On one hand, of course, technically speaking, USA’s The Sinner isn’t really an anthology. It’s a drama series about Bill Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose, who investigated one shocking crime in the first season and simply moves on to a second shocking crime in the new season, which starts Wednesday.
Air date: Aug 01, 2018
On the other hand, USA wants to call The Sinner a limited series, a categorization that helped get Jessica Biel an Emmy nomination for her harrowing performance in the first installment and the network would probably like to play a similar game next year (though Biel’s presence remains only as an executive producer).
For purposes of this review it’s illustrative to treat The Sinner as an anthology because ever since USA announced that The Leftovers and Fargo favorite Carrie Coon would be co-starring in the show’s second chapter, I’ve been hearing a lot of, “So can I just jump right in with the new season?” and “Will I be OK just returning for the premiere if I kinda liked the first season, but never finished it because there’s way too much TV to watch?”
That second question came from me. Having watched the first three episodes of the new season, I have a pretty conclusive answer: absolutely. Sporadic former viewers and new viewers are welcome. The second season of The Sinner acknowledges the events of the Biel season and the attention it brought Harry Ambrose. It also references a detail or two from Harry’s personal life, details that were part of the initial character introduction. That’s about it. If Coon or the season’s main plotline, touching on upstate New York and its long history of cults, piques your interest in a way the first season did not, you’d lose little by coming aboard now.
That raises the follow-up question: Do you actually want to jump right in for the second season of The Sinner? You just might.
With Derek Simonds again leading the writing team, now without Petra Hammesfahr’s novel as source material, The Sinner returns as more clearly Harry’s story. In this case, the generally grimacing detective is summoned back to his former hometown of Keller by fledgling local detective Heather Novac (Natalie Paul), daughter of Harry’s childhood friend Jack (Tracy Letts). Heather is stymied by a disturbing double murder at a local motel, a crime that seems to have been committed by a stern, dark-eyed child (Elisha Henig’s Julian). The connection to a nearby secretive religious movement triggers flashbacks for Heather and fascinates Harry, dealing with traumatic flashbacks of his own, especially with the arrival of Vera Walker (Coon), a key figure at the dogmatically familiar commune.
The second season of The Sinner‘s structure is similar to that of the first. We open with a harrowing murder that appears to have a clear-but-confounding perpetrator. The evidence points to a straightforward conviction and an open-shut case, but as the tagline for the first season declared, “It’s not a question of who or how, but why…?” Why would Julian kill the two traveling companions who seem to be his parents? Where were they going? Why were they leaving? Just as the case around Biel’s Cora initially seemed to have the potential to pivot to myriad genres, it remains to be seen after three episodes whether Julian’s menace is of the Bad Seed or The Omen variety or something more spiritually puzzling.
Through it all, Pullman looks mostly skeptical and bemused, as Harry’s interest in the case invariably becomes more personal and curious than the cold, mechanical justice system is designed to understand. We know his perspective is both higher-minded and deeper than those hinted at by hard facts, though like Amy Adams’ character in Sharp Objects, he’s dealing with a disorienting intersection of past and present. It’s not a great performance, but with its introductory quirks somewhat reduced, it’s a sturdy and inquisitive one, allowing the new figures in the story to attract his attention and that of the viewers. Paul is comparably meant to be more solid than exciting, intentionally laying back and letting Mindhunter veteran Hannah Gross steal flashback scenes as Heather’s free-spirited girlfriend.
Coon is perfectly enigmatic, not quite the season’s villain and yet utterly unsettling whether evincing chilly, clipped leadership or in her few moments of emotional release. Fans of her recent TV work will notice the absence of the instantly empathetic quality she brought to Nora Durst or Gloria Burgle, which somehow makes her all the more watchable and mysterious. She’s barely featured in the first episode as the series metes out both Vera and Coon equally. We know Coon has additional unseen gears and we sense Vera does as well. Thus far, she also hasn’t shared scenes with real-life husband Letts. That’s just another thing to hope The Sinner gives us.
Henig is scary and sympathetic and very quiet. You never notice him acting and he’s an effective blank canvas.
Helping The Sinner immediately settle back into last season’s alien and alienating tone is indie vet Antonio Campos, director of last season’s first three episodes and this season’s first two. Campos works in tight, occasionally unflattering close-ups at odds with more traditional TV grammar. He also relies on a shallow and distorting depth of field that makes foregrounded characters into the only sharp images surrounded by an occasionally over-bright miasma. We see characters almost with blinders, unable to focus on anything around them. It’s an instruction to pay attention to the performances and to be aware that our heroes aren’t always able to process their environment clearly. It’s an aesthetic that blends form and function and, in its own way, is as distinctive as the washed- out colors and oddly motivated Dutch angles Sam Esmail brings to USA’s Mr. Robot.
For whatever reason, even as I appreciated Biel and the show’s thoughtful approach, the first season of The Sinner began to feel stretched thin at midseason and I lost track of it. Jumping back for this new season was easy, and with Coon, Henig and the fertile religious history of the region, my curiosity in The Sinner is rejuvenated thus far. What remains to be seen is if, in a TV landscape increasingly full of cult-based stories and ultra-serious longform crime stories, The Sinner will be able to sustain my attention through its full eight episodes this time around.
Cast: Bill Pullman, Carrie Coon, Natalie Paul, Hannah Gross, Tracy Letts, Elisha Henig
Executive producers: Derek Simonds, Charlie Gogolak, Jessica Biel, Michelle Purple, Brad Winters, John Coles
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (USA)
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