“The Sinner” has been an underrated procedural for the last three seasons, given a slight jolt of life by ranking in the top ten on Netflix when its last outing dropped there. Will the Netflix buzz for this solid mystery series lead to ratings when the fourth season premieres tomorrow night, October 13th, on USA? Only time will tell, but true fans of the critically acclaimed show may be a little startled by a shift in tone for this year’s outing. Something has changed in the very structure of “The Sinner,” a show that distinguished itself for three years by being more of a whydunit instead of a whodunit. The incredible series premiere featured a woman stabbing a man to death on a crowded beach. There was no question as to the identity of the killer. And the subsequent seasons followed a similar formula in that motive became the driving force of the mystery instead of merely finding the right suspect. Season four returns the show’s emphasis on trauma but it feels more like “The Killing” than previous years of “The Sinner” in the way it swirls its mystery around a fog-shrouded island.
The newest inhabitant of that island is Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), one of my favorite modern detectives. Pullman imbues Ambrose with just the right balance of weariness that comes with investigating brutal crime and the intellect and passion to continue doing so. You can sense the concern behind Harry’s eyes that if he doesn’t solve the crime no one will—which is a theme amplified this year—and so there’s a commitment to getting the job done for the sake of justice, even if it kills him.
And it almost did last year. Season three’s mystery got closer to Harry than any other, even leading to him being buried alive before killing a sociopath. Understandably, he’s retired, and he carries traumatic images from that season to a remote island off the coast of New England with his girlfriend (Jessica Hecht, returning from last year). On one of his first days, he runs into a young woman named Percy Muldoon (Alice Kremelberg), who is the member of an affluent fishing business family on the island. That night, he sees Percy in a state of distress and follows her to the edge of a cliff. She jumps. Or does she? Whether or not Percy is missing or dead drives the mystery of the first few episodes as Harry helps the local police chief try to unpack what happened to Percy.
The first three seasons were driven by a bit of star power as Jessica Biel, Carrie Coon, and Matt Bomer drove the action of them, respectively. (Pullman was the only holdover from season to season—now joined by Hecht, although she seems to have a smaller role than last year.) This year ditches a bit of that star power, although there are great character actors spread across the island including Frances Fisher, Michael Mosley, and Neal Huff—all playing members of the mysterious Muldoon clan. They're all good, but it again feels like a bit of a shift in structure. If Kremelberg is meant to be this year's star, she's a cipher to start the season, and other Muldoons feel a bit undefined as well.
Unlike previous seasons, the first arc of this year is all about mystery. Was someone following Percy? What about the witness who saw her driving away? Could Harry have imagined it all? The plotting is impressively quick with the reveals—pace has always been a strong suit of the show in that it doesn’t feel nearly as rushed as most TV mysteries but also keeps it moving—but I have to admit to missing the very structure of those first three years, wherein things felt more defined. It’s possible that creator Derek Simonds is attempting to really dig into Harry’s mental state—things are less defined because of his trauma, to a certain degree—but “The Sinner” feels more like a familiar mystery series than it did at the best points in the first three years.
Admittedly, the third season of “The Sinner” got a little insane with some plot twists that stretched credulity. Perhaps there was a conscious effort to pull back the throttle and present something more traditional (although hints at something that might even be supernatural in Percy’s world defy that theory), but the balance of the show that was so well done between each year’s killer and the detective trying to do more than just arrest them feels off a bit here, even if Pullman will always keep this show very watchable. This time around, his counterpart is a really a ghost, as it seems like Percy is quite literally haunting Harry. Like he needs another one of those.
First three episodes screened for review.