‘The Sinner’ Makes the Most of a Deceptively Simple Genre

  • From left, Carrie Coon as Vera Walker and Elisha Henig as Julian Walker in the USA Network series, "The Sinner." (Peter Kramer/USA Network)

The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 01, 2018

USA’s The Sinner looks simple enough. It’s a psychological crime anthology series, and if you watch much TV, then you’ve seen plenty of those scroll past in your menu of choices.

But The Sinner, which returned for a second, all-new, eight-episode tale Wednesday night, deserves more than a passing glance, if for no other reason than to admire its balance: The core mystery is complicated but not overly so; the ambiguities are presented in terms of human flaws rather than philosophy tracts; the gore is politely measured out; the twists are plausible enough to pass muster; and, above all else, The Sinner’s pace and writing lure you in and resist the urge to drift, promising a conclusive wrap-up. Characters tend to say only what is needed, rarely more.

These qualities, which seem easy enough, are in fact difficult for many crime series to achieve. Season 1, still a worthwhile binge, starred Jessica Biel (who is also one of The Sinner’s executive producers) as Cora Tannetti, a troubled wife and mother who impulsively stabbed a stranger to death during a Sunday lake outing — a horrific act witnessed by dozens of people on the beach, including her husband.

Had it not been for the empathetic and unorthodox sleuthing of Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), Cora might have gone straight to prison. Harry’s efficient and instinctive investigation, conducted in the midst of his own personal problems, took The Sinner down an unexpected path to a solid and more meaningful conclusion, the details of which I won’t spoil, other than to note that Biel is up for an Emmy for her performance and Pullman really ought to be.

Season 2 moves on to a new, equally baffling crime. On what appears to be a family road trip en route to Niagara Falls, a couple is murdered by their creepy tweenage son, Julian (Elisha Henig), who brings them poisoned mugs of tea from the breakfast bar at the motel where they’re staying.

A local rookie detective, Heather Novack (Natalie Paul), reaches out to Harry (Pullman reprises the role) to ask for his expert help in the case — even though Harry lives four hours away. As before, Harry quickly begins to doubt the open-and-shut nature of the evidence. The young suspect is being held in foster care while police look for any next of kin; before long, a woman named Vera shows up, claiming to be the boy’s mother.

That Vera is played by Carrie Coon (The Leftovers; Fargo) turns out to be the only endorsement this season needs — it’s just one of those “I’d watch her read from the phone book” opportunities to heap praise.

And it’s a good part for Coon: Vera is an influential member of a cultlike commune that occupies a farm 20 miles away, a subplot that stirs vague memories of Hulu’s recent religious cult drama The Path, only this cult feels more sinister. As the circumstances of Julian’s relationship to the murder victims grows darker, The Sinner again becomes an irresistibly compelling show to watch, very much a late-summer treat.

Pullman again gives a gruffly understated but impressive performance as Harry, who happens to be a native of the town where this new murder took place. Coming home is fraught with complications and disturbing childhood memories. Detective Novack is also carrying around some upsetting recollections, specifically about a close friend who joined Vera’s cult years ago and was never seen again.

It’s tempting to suggest that there’s much more to The Sinner than a viewer might expect, but perhaps what’s truly satisfying about the show is that it’s not trying to be much more than it is. This is the one case where the critic’s only role is to remind you to watch.