Current Issue #488

Stream Time: The Sinner review

Stream Time: The Sinner review

Netflix’s The Sinner’s returns without much of its original cast, while reviving the key elements – a sudden murder, flashbacks and a silvered Bill Pullman – that made the first season so gripping.

In committing a graphic, on-screen murder, Jessica Biel brought her career back to life. If you haven’t already done so, hasten to your Netflix-viewing-device of choice and watch the first season of The Sinner—the mini-series adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of same name. Obligatory content warnings for violence, sexual assault, and genius.

The second season of the show, released internationally this week, falls short of its predecessor. Perhaps it was always going to be so, for the first season was as perfect as any piece of dramatized television ever produced. It was not, merely, excellent; it was complete. By the final shot of the season finale, every character arc had resolved, every mystery had been solved, and every discerning viewer was satiated. The second season could not simply follow on from the first, because there was nothing left over upon which something could follow. Asking for a second season of this show feels like asking Shakespeare to bang out a sequel to Hamlet, or demanding Mozart throw an extra movement on the back of the Jupiter Symphony. Some things are well and truly finished, and are best left that way. American television executives invariably feel differently. There is no recorded case of them ever having let a commercially viable prospect go gentle into that good night:

Despite having depleted their source material, the show’s creators have managed to avert disaster. To achieve this, they’ve dispensed with almost everything that came before. This new season is, basically, a spin-off that retains the old branding—it’s like if Frasier was released as Cheers, Season 12. Of the previously introduced characters, only Detective Harry Ambrose (a bearded Bill Pullman) remains. Both the setting, and the plot, are new.

As Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa put it, “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same”. Again, the show opens with an obvious, yet inexplicable killing. Again, there’s beautiful cinematography, which alternates between huge, beautiful landscapes, and isolating medium shots with claustrophobically shallow depth of field. Again, Bill Pullman delivers an understated yet charismatic performance, opposite a remarkably talented leading lady; Carrie Coon stars as the antagonist, a controlling mother who stands as the first-among-equals at a Jungian cult. Among an excellent new cast (all of whom will no doubt be themselves defenestrated should a third season eventuate) Coon is a standout. One casting choice, however, is baffling. Without wanting to give the plot away, suffice it to say that it impairs one’s suspension of disbelief.

Although the second season isn’t the equal of the first—the plot is not as tight, the weirdo liberationist New Age psychiatry of Coon’s cult isn’t as compelling as the first season’s weirdo repressive Roman Catholicism, and the continued use of leitmotif is not nearly so haunting as it once was—The Sinner is still excellent television and has the better of just about anything else you might opt to watch. Yes, the producers are flogging a dead horse, but the horse is twitching in a very lifelike and compelling fashion.

The Sinner is on now streaming on Netflix Australia

James McCann

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James Donald Forbes McCann is a writer and award-winning stand-up comedian.

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