Tuesday, July 31, 2018

TV REVIEW: USA's 'The Sinner' - Season 2

USA's The Sinner will return for its second season on Wednesday, August 1 at 10/9c. following a new episode of Suits. The new season stars Bill Pullman, Carrie Coon, Natalie Paul, Hannah Gross, Elisha Henig and Tracy Letts.

Read on for my thoughts on the new season after screening its first three episodes.

The Sinner was a stealth hit for USA last year. It managed to do something that not a whole lot of shows are capable of doing in today's entertainment climate. It grew throughout its season in the ratings. It was a compulsive series that took the attention of the audience and made the viewer very interested in seeing what the outcome would be. That excitement fueled the conversation forward. And the first season offered clear and definitive resolution to the main story. It was always envisioned as a one-season story. But the success of the show prompted USA to order another installment. And so, The Sinner is back for a new season. It once again tells the story of a crime where the audience and the characters know who committed the act but don't know the realizing behind it. It's a completely new story with a largely new set of characters. The only significant holdover from the first season is Bill Pullman's Detective Harry Ambrose. Frankly, Ambrose wouldn't be the ideal choice to build an investigative anthology series around. He had vital importance to the Cora Tannetti case. He was the investigator who knew to keep digging in order to find the true story hidden underneath all of the trauma and abuse. He got his answers and managed to save a life in the process. That was a very rewarding character journey for him in the first season. But his story was also compromised with a lackluster domestic plot that was pretty aimless for eight episodes. And so, it wasn't an immediately tantalizing idea to have even more focus on Ambrose in the new season. However, the transition is pretty remarkable. Yes, there is a lot of Ambrose as he talks about foliage and stares off into the distance. But there are a compelling set of new characters who really elevate the material and make it very interesting. The themes and tone are similar but the experiences and circumstances are very different this season.

It's important to point out that there is no Jessica Biel substitute in the second season. She is still a very active part of the show. She is just choosing to continue forward as an executive producer and not an actor. That's perfectly fine because Cora's story came to its conclusion last year. Plus, it would have felt like misery porn if Cora once again found herself in a complicated case where she did something horrifying but didn't know why. She went through that agonizing process once and it would have been too much suffering to endure it all again. And so, the show had to be very smart building its new central mystery - especially since it didn't have the framework of a book this time around. Writer Derek Simonds and director Antonio Campos do manage to create a story that is equally complex and moody as last season's while featuring some surprising twists and turns as well. This time the killer at the center of the case is a child. Julian Walker (Elisha Henig) poisons his parents while in a hotel room one night. It's the opening sequence of the new season. It's so vicious and complicated to watch. It once again sets the tone immediately that not everything is alright in this world. Of course, the setting is still virtually the same even though Ambrose is no longer working out of Dorchester. Instead, he has traveled four hours west to his hometown. That's where this crime has taken place. He is helping the daughter of an old friend make sense of how a teenage boy could be filled with enough rage to kill his parents in this manner.

All of this means there are strong themes and exploration of the parent-child relationship in the new episodes. That was already a powerful component of the show in its first season. Cora's rebellion against her parents and her fear of what could happen in the aftermath were so defining of who she was. And now, the show is examining how a specific individual is raised can contribute to his outlook on life. Right away, it's clear that things aren't normal with Julian. He is a quiet kid who keeps to himself. He seems small for his age. But he still knew what he was doing. It's soon learned that he and his parents were living on a commune a few miles away. The leader of that community is played by The Leftovers and Fargo alum Carrie Coon. Her presence is very commanding the moment she steps foot on the screen. Her character, Vera, has a very interesting and complex connection to the case. She is close with the family and very invested in what happens to Julian next. As such, there is a strong person looking out for Julian's best interests at the heart of this story. That also means Coon and Pullman get to butt heads multiple times across these opening episodes. That fuels so much great conflict too. It allows there to be phenomenal acting on both of their parts. Both of their characters believe they know what's best for this child. But they have competing agendas. Vera wants to keep some truths about her community a secret while Ambrose wants to unravel the truth in the hopes of exposing a trauma that could once again explain everything that has happened in this twisted case.

Overall, the new season is a worthy follow-up to the first. In fact, it may actually be an improvement because it wants to spend time and focus on the supporting ensemble. A year ago, the show really didn't know what to do with Christopher Abbott, Dohn Norwood and Abby Miller. And now, the focus is split pretty evenly amongst a number of characters. They are all vying for attention while the show is carefully breaking apart the mysteries at the core of their being. Ambrose being in his hometown forces a couple of moments from his upbringing to the surface in surprising ways especially as he sees Julian as a younger version of him. His new partner on the case, Heather (Natalie Paul), also finds herself with strange past connection to Vera's group that is worth exploring. Plus, Coon's real-life husband Tracy Letts appears as a friend of Ambrose's who just wants to ensure that everyone is taking care of themselves and not working too hard. That's a somewhat strange quality to have in a mystery thriller. But it's also vital to the understanding of the new season because it's clear the show is building outward this year. In the first season, Ambrose was asked to look inward in order to explore the depths of Cora. He took her on a journey that was very revealing and rewarding in the end. And now, he is struggling to do the same for his past life as he returns to the community he left so many years ago. He left behind all of these memories and people. And now, his old town is under attack from strange and unknown circumstances. He feels like the only person who can make any sense of it. It's a compelling hook to the new season that the audience should easily get invested in once more.