Review by C.J. Bunce
Whether you first met him as the sympathetic, put-upon teacher opposite Nicole Kidman and Alec Baldwin in Malice, the brother of the comatose guy in While You Were Sleeping, the President of the U.S. in an alien invasion in Independence Day, or the scruffy-looking rogue in Spaceballs, you probably love Bill Pullman. He’s just as endearing and amiable in his gritty mystery series Sinner, with all three seasons now streaming on Netflix. But he’s also troubled (more than the residents of Haven), a bit crotchety, and stranger than even the most odd detective you can conjure (even Adrian Monk). Detective Harry Ambrose may be the Sinner in the title of the USA Network television series, or that might apply more to the killers he tracks down and unthinkably befriends, as he works three season-long cases in upstate New York. Is it worth your time? That question doesn’t have a short answer. But a fourth season is in the works, so now is the time to find out.
As a series-long theme, Harry has a dark backstory that goes back to his youth that is unveiled slowly over the three seasons, but never completely. Each year he is paired with a new suspect to a crime that is so bizarre it may take many viewers outside the realm of reality. We’ve seen this kind of thing in Luther, where Idris Elba was a detective who ultimately partnered with a known serial killer to track other criminals. We’ve seen writers ignore the fact America has this thing called the right to counsel, and they do it here as a matter of course, bend the norm of the law to coerce confessions like in The Closer. We’ve seen the quirky detective trope going all the way back to Sherlock Holmes and as recent as in Prodigal Son. And we’ve seen all kinds of the darker side of violence in series like Quarry and countless others. Sinner is in that mix, pushing every boundary with its protagonist and his subjects.
Is it some kind of PTSD trauma that relates to his past that makes Harry act so irrationally? In the first season we find him cheating on his wife in the middle of a tenuous and half-hearted effort to reconcile with her, seeking… something of the S&M variety… from a local dominatrix while he’s trying to understand why an otherwise normal wife stabs a man to death on a local beach. In Season 2 Harry is pulled back to his hometown by the daughter of an old friend, and he gets too close to the leader of a small-town cult after her teen son confesses to murdering a couple the boy is traveling with on their way to Niagara Falls. Harry gets chummy with the villain again in Season 3, this time with a man who lets his friend die after a car wreck, going so far as attending a party and drinking with the suspect in New York City, and helping the suspect plant a tree in his yard (Harry is an expert on trees), and developing a romantic relationship with a similarly odd victim of the man. Any one of these transgressions would get a detective fired anywhere in the real world, so the reason viewers will hang on for the ride is because it’s Bill Pullman in the driver’s seat.
But Pullman has some good assists along the journey. The actress playing the woman stabbing the seemingly random man on the beach is Jessica Biel (The Illusionist, Cellular, Stealth, Next, Total Recall), who brings some of her best work in the series (she’s also a producer). It’s easy to see the writers must have had fun twisting the story to arrive at its ultimate conclusion in Biel’s episodes. You can’t predict the ending, because it’s too bizarre. But the journey will have you sticking around until the end. Season 2 co-stars Carrie Coon (Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Gone Girl, Fargo, and she’s Proxima Midnight in Avengers: Infinity War) as the cult leader. At times she seems like any doting mother, other times you expect the curtain to drop and Wicker Man to show up. Season 3 brings in Matt Bomer (White Collar, Chuck, Tru Calling, Doom Patrol, The Magnificent Seven) as a husband, new father, and high school teacher at a private school who finds himself disconnected from reality and acting on impulses he gets from a dead former friend.
But it all comes down to Pullman, playing this eccentric man of few words, and how he addresses haunts from his and his suspects’ pasts, how he immerses himself too deeply in his job, and disassociates himself from every meaningful relationship in his life. It’s a difficult character to like, yet Pullman makes it work somehow. Over each season the cases get weirder, with the first season the best, and the intrigue wanes once viewers begin to understand Harry and see the kinds of cases the series will be featuring.
It’s not the best series on Netflix, and it’s not the worst, but if you like mysteries for the ride and sometimes unsatisfying endings don’t bother you (and loose threads), you may want to give it a try. The first three seasons of Sinner are streaming now on Netflix. Season 4 will premiere in 2021 or 2022, following on Netflix about a year later.