Each season, USA’s The Sinner opens with a crime whose perpetrator is immediately revealed. The question is never a whodunnit, but instead asks why. And that, really, is at the core of why many of us enjoy crime dramas so much. The unraveling of the mystery is the thing, but The Sinner makes it all about the psychology of the crime; the mystery to unravel is embedded in the past of the person who committed this heinous act.
In its first season, The Sinner was based on German crime writer Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of the same name. Though it was meant to be a miniseries, the central conceit was too interesting to leave behind (that is, the why-dunnit of it all). All three anthology seasons so far are connected only through a single beleaguered detective, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), as he investigates why a woman murders a man on a beach and has no recollection of the crime (Season 1, starring Jessica Biel), why a young boy poisons his parents while on vacation (Season 2, starring Carrie Coon as a cultist), and why a man left his friend to die at the scene of a car accident (Season 3, starring Matt Bomer).
Working backwards to uncover the trauma that causes people to snap, Ambrose is so tired and grizzled he’s barely upright. He rattles around this new season essentially dragging himself from scene to scene, which is almost comical. And yet, Pullman makes him grounded and genuine enough that we can understand how these troubled souls all come to open up and even rely upon him to help unlock their own mysteries. And in the tradition of all great crime dramas, Ambrose has his own history of trauma that both fuels him and helps him deeply commiserate with those he is seeking to bring to justice.
In the new season—the first three episodes of which were made available to critics—Jamie Burns (Bomer) is an improbably handsome school teacher living in the suburbs of Dorchester, New York, whose wife (Parisa Fitz-Henley) is about to have a baby. This serene domestic veneer is almost immediately punctured by the arrival of Jamie’s college friend Nick Haas (Chris Messina), a moody and troubled man who makes Jamie uncomfortable by alluding to a complicated shared past. That night, the two are involved in a car wreck on a lonely stretch of road leading to the house of a painter (Jessica Hecht) with whom there is no obvious connection. Jamie lives, Nick does not, and while the scene looks like a tragic accident, Ambrose’s instincts push him to investigate it as a murder.
It’s not always clear where The Sinner is headed in its early episodes, and the new season seems to be hinting at a toxic friendship based around corrupted college-age ideas of Neitzsche’s Ubermensch. But The Sinner thrives not on the specifics of the crime and setting (which are, nevertheless, interesting), but on character exploration. In this case, there aren’t many series that specifically address a kind of leader/follower dynamic between two male friends that causes them to engage in dangerous, destructive behavior (common though it may be). As that leader with dark impulses, Messina is creepily menacing, but Bomer is almost more frightening as a man so caught up in the thrall of his friend’s ideas that his family (and really anyone he meets) is put at risk. It’s a tension that only builds throughout each episode, as Jamie is someone who is willing to do terrible things but will still ultimately process it as being someone else’s fault.
For drama fans (and crime drama fans in particular), The Sinner remains a very underrated anthology that always delivers a solid case with a great cast around it. It’s a good binge watch, but a worthy weekly exploration as well. Also, there’s Matt Bomer’s face, which really makes a case for itself. There’s no prior knowledge that’s really necessary to dive into the new series, but if you haven’t caught up, I would also recommend the first two seasons (currently streaming on Netflix).
The Sinner Season 3 premieres Thursday, February 6th on USA.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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