(There will be spoilers)
There’s a lot of great television in the Peak TV era, but there’s not enough great writing to sustain all of the great on-screen talent, or at least, that’s the only way I can explain the second season of USA Network’s anthology series, Sinner.
Granted, I liked the first season of the series, but my expectation level for that season was set at “Jessica Biel.” As in, “For a Jessica Biel drama, this is surprisingly good!” The second season, however, brought in Carrie Coon and (her husband) Tracy Letts. I consider Coon — along with Regina King (both of The Leftovers) — to be the best actresses of their generations, while Letts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and a Tony-award winning actor in his own right. My expectations for the second season were Carrie Coon and Tracy Letts level, but Sinner season two is still sadly only “good for a Jessica Biel” series (though Biel, who produces, does not feature in this season).
It’s a middling, dour season of television without an ounce of humor or pathos, a fairly straightforward procedural thriller without much in the way of thrills, the kind of series I might have bailed on after episode five if it were a 10-episode series instead of an 8-episode season (although, honestly, viewers could watch the first four episodes and the final episode and miss very little). The biggest problem with the series, in fact, may be the casting of Letts, not that he’s not great here, but because he’s a background character for most of the series, which is the easiest way in the world to telegraph his involvement in the “shocking” finale. There’s no way that Letts is employed as the fifth-billed character unless he is going to figure into the “twist.”
The season at least starts strong, skillfully executing a premise not unlike that of the first season: Someone commits a murder — in this case, a young boy named Julian kills who we think are his parents — and the mystery is not who committed the murder, but why. As the series unfolds, we find out that the couple that Julian murdered is not, in fact, his parents, but a man and a woman who kidnapped Julian to get him away from the cult where he’s being raised. Inside the cult is its leader, Vera Walker (Coon), who purports to be Julian’s mom, though we later learn that she’s not the mom, either. She raised Julian after more or less stealing him from one of the cult members and forcing her away. The murdered couple from the pilot was simply trying to reunite Julian with his real mother.
Meanwhile, the only returning member from the first season is Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), and I suppose I probably should have set my expectation level for both seasons at “TV Bill Pullman” because that’s about how good both seasons are: Better than Jessica Biel, but nowhere nearly as good as Carrie Coon. Harry has all sorts of issues of his own (the first season had to do with masochistic sex, and this one with the traumatic memories of the mother he killed in a house fire), and as he did with Jessica Biel’s character in season one, he takes a special interest in Julian. He’s investigating the case with Detective Heather Novack (Natalie Paul), who it turns out is a lesbian who had a crush on Julian’s biological mother before she joined the cult. Tracy Letts plays Novack’s Dad, a diner owner and also an old friend of Ambrose.
By midway through the season, the original question posed by the series — why did Julian kill that couple? — is mostly forgotten and replaced by another question: Who is Julian’s father? That question becomes even more pressing late in the series when Julian’s biological mother ends up dead. I doubt I have to tell any of you the answer to that question, however, because it was answered in the casting process. Again, “a diner owner and an old friend of Ambrose’s” is not a role that Letts would take, even if it means he gets to work with his wife.
Coon — who is very good here — nevertheless ends up becoming something of an afterthought in her own series. She helps to move the plot along in the first few episodes, but by the back half, she mostly exists to provide the kid with another choice besides “go to jail for murder” (that other choice being “run away with my not-mom”). She’s very good as the anguished not-mom, and she’s terrific in a scene where she seduces/chokes/hypnotizes Ambrose in order to surface his old memories, but she could do the bulk of her Sinner season two work in her sleep. Her character was far more interesting when we thought she’d be the villain of the series, but that possibility fizzles fairly early on, and she spends much of the rest of the series begging the cops not to put her son in jail, even though her son clearly confessed to two murders, murders that the series ultimately treats as “oopsies” while turning its focus to the rape where Julian was conceived.
Ultimately, however, it’s a fairly mediocre season of television, and in retrospect, so probably was the first season, but it’s remarkable how much easier it is to enjoy a television series when our expectations are lowered.
Header Image Source: USA Network