What to do when a limited series succeeds is, in TV circles, a high-class problem, one that USA’s “The Sinner” tackles reasonably well. Having exhausted Jessica Biel’s story, the show moves on to a new case – connected only by Bill Pullman’s gnarled detective – that once again begins with a murder, backing up from the “who” and “how” of it to slowly pull back the curtain on “why.”
The show kicks off creepily enough, with an 11-year-old boy (Elisha Henig) poisoning the two adults he’s traveling with in a local motel. The case prompts authorities to enlist Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose, drawing him back to his small hometown, where he has to deal with some personal baggage while sorting through the facts.
The same challenges apply to the young detective with whom he’s paired, Heather (Natalie Paul), who’s smart enough to realize a multiple homicide is a bit out of her depth. But the real centerpiece of the new season is “The Leftovers’” Carrie Coon, playing a key figure in a nearby commune – or is it some sort of cult? – at which the boy had been living.
Biel remains a producer on the project, but the star power that she brought to the festivities is gone. Fortunately, Coon proves a compellingly enigmatic and imperious figure, and not incidentally has the chance to share billing with her real-life husband, Tracy Letts, who appears as an old pal of Harry’s. (Coon and Letts don’t have any scenes together in the early going.)
“The Sinner” doesn’t operate at the same operatic level as similarly formatted shows like “Fargo” or “True Detective” – which also face the challenge of hitting the reset button on quirky crime yarns – but has the advantage of hewing pretty closely to USA’s procedural wheelhouse. In essence, making the motive the mystery, as opposed to the identity of the killer, represents the smallest of twists, but works plenty well if it’s executed properly.
How well the latest season will hold up – and pay off – remains to be seen, but based on three of the eight episodes, it’s enticing enough to want to know, Biel or no Biel. For that reason, it won’t be much of a mystery if there’s another “whydunnit,” and a “Sinner 3,” next summer.
“The Sinner” returns Aug. 1 at 10 p.m. on USA.