Carrie Coon in The Sinner
Photo: Zach Dilgard (USA Network)

It features fractured, elliptical storytelling. There’s none of the usual question of “whodunit” in the murder mystery that serves as the main plot. And it bucks some of the standard conventions of style and aesthetic in cable mystery dramas, thanks to the bolder choices of arthouse provocateur Antonio Campos (Christine, Afterschool), who helms the initial episodes of each season with an icy distance. But there’s an undeniably populist streak of dark, lurid entertainment that runs through USA’s The Sinner, which helps explain why it became the top-rated new drama last summer—and if the first few episodes of its second season are any indication, why it should have no trouble attracting even more eyeballs this time around.

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The broad contours of the story are much the same as in season one. The first episode sets up a self-contained little universe, then rips it apart with a shocking act of violence. In the first season (which was adapted from Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of the same name), it was Jessica Biel’s cheerful but tightly wound mother stabbing a beachgoer for no discernible reason; here, it’s a withdrawn and anxious boy named Julian (Elisha Henig) and his parents on a road trip to Niagara Falls. They stop for the night at a motel in the town of Keller, New York, and come morning, both man and woman are killed in an ugly fashion. There’s no question who the guilty party is—the only issue is why.

Once again, Bill Pullman’s troubled detective Harry Ambrose is called in to investigate. He’s no longer being emotionally shredded by his collapsing marriage; no, this time it’s the trauma of his past. Ambrose grew up in Keller, and the memories of his childhood—sparked when Heather Novack (Natalie Paul), the newly minted detective assigned to the crime, calls him back home to assist in the case—force him to confront a family history he fled long ago. A steady progression of flashbacks again link the past to the present, as buried pain is dug up in order to supply clues to the new tragedy. Everyone’s got a secret and the further down the rabbit hole the detectives go, the more it becomes clear there are bigger issues at play than just the case in front of them. Ambrose never archly says, “This all feels a little familiar,” but he doesn’t need to.

Bill Pullman and Tracey Letts
Photo: Peter Kramer (USA Network)

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Two things keep it from feeling like a rehash of season one: the excellent choices in new narrative twists made by writer-creator Derek Simonds, and the caliber of talent involved in bringing it to life. Chief among the latter group is Carrie Coon, who between this and Fargo deserves some sort of special Emmy award for breathing compelling new life into already existing series. Coon plays Vera Walker, a woman who we briefly see in a strange flashback with Julian, and who subsequently shows up in the Keller police station and throws everything our detectives thought they knew into disorder. To say more would be to spoil the soapy treats doled out by the show, but suffice it to say Coon brings a wonderful fusion of frazzled humanism and sinister duplicity to the part, another magnetic performance by the actor that elevates the material and lends gravitas to some of the more daffily implausible turns.

For his part, Simonds manages to craft a fresh and unusual story with which to fill in the parameters of the series’ framework. Gone is the combative push and pull between the insular world of country-club privilege and its surrounding orbit of working-class hardship that defined the previous season. In its place, we get a thoughtful study of small-town alienation, and how the search for a deeper meaning to life can set even the most high-minded of people on misguided paths. Ambrose stays in town during his visit with Heather’s father, Jack (Tracey Letts), an old childhood friend, and watching these two lonely men struggle to connect and communicate better conveys the way time can harden and block ingrained pain than any flashback. Dropping in on Heather’s past, in contrast, richly shades in the ambiguity hiding just beneath the surface of the novice detective’s connection to the case, as questions of friendship and sexuality color her history and lend pathos to her investigation.

But these deeper themes never sacrifice the easy pleasures of the mystery, which continues to land on just the right side of trashy, aided by Campos’ almost David Fincher-like sense of detachment and Simonds’ refusal to allow his characters any cheap verbal shortcuts to illumination. The Sinner’s admirable commitment to show-don’t-tell storytelling is matched by a firm insistence on relatable, human dialogue, a nice tonic in the era of portentous pontificating so common to other cable puzzle-box mysteries. Even when we’re traveling to ominous commune compounds on the edge of town or Ambrose is receiving threatening late-night phone calls, the show never gives in to outsized speechifying, instead keeping all the players grounded in the everyday world of low-grade frustrations and awkward interpersonal exchanges too easily misinterpreted.

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The Sinner is a hell of a lot of fun, and it anchors its sensationalist material with grounded performances and dispassionate camerawork. It’s the summer-TV equivalent of an artfully constructed novel that nonetheless contains the pulpy can’t-put-it-down subject matter of a dishy beach read. And at only eight episodes in length, like an irresistible page-turner, it’s over before you know it.