Season 1 of The Sinner wasn't bad. It had a compelling "whydunit" mystery, a great performance by Bill Pullman as an emotionally-damaged detective and the pulpy heart of a crime drama underneath its prestige dressing. It was held back by a limp performance from Jessica Biel, who wouldn't have gotten the part if she wasn't an executive producer, and the baseline ridiculousness of its Camus-biting plot. (Season 1's insanity was actually toned down from the novel on which it was based; Petra Hammesfahr's book had Nazis and a central character named Johnny Guitar). The Sinner didn't need a Season 2; it was conceived of and executed as a limited series. But it turned out to be the top-rated new cable series of 2017, so USA renewed it. Fortunately, the creative team of Biel and her production partner Michelle Purple, showrunner Derek Simonds and director Antonio Campos took that renewal as a challenge to top themselves, and they succeeded in every way.
Season 2 focuses on a new "whydunit." A 13-year-old boy named Julian Walker (Mr. Robot's Elisha Henig) murders his parents at a motel in a small town in a depressed part of Western New York, and he won't or can't say why. Overmatched local cop Heather Novack (The Deuce's Natalie Paul) calls her dad's childhood friend Det. Harry Ambrose (Pullman) for backup, because she saw the great work he did with the Tannetti case. Ambrose hasn't been home in 15 years, because there are too many painful memories there, but he goes back to help. He and Heather find themselves getting caught up in a conspiracy much bigger than they could have imagined that revolves around Mosswood Grove, an insular and peculiar spiritual community on the edge of town that's led by a woman named Vera (Carrie Coon).
The addition of Coon, who was TV's MVP last year thanks to her performances on The Leftovers and Fargo, automatically makes the show better. It's like The Sinner is the Los Angeles Lakers and Coon is LeBron James. She's magnetic as the inscrutable Vera and expresses the fascinating ambiguity of Simonds' writing. Is Vera a crazy cult leader doing a Wild Wild Country thing or is her community genuinely helping people who were failed by mainstream society? Through its first three episodes, the show does an admirable job of dancing around the gray area.
The fact that The Sinner is no longer tied to source material helps it immensely. Season 1 was an adaptation of a German novel that transplanted the action to upstate New York, but it could have taken place anywhere. In Season 2, Simonds uses the history of his location to his advantage. Season 2 is set in a region of New York that was known as the "Burned-Over District" in the 19th century for its fiery religious formations and revivals. Mormonism was founded there, and the utopian Oneida Community pioneered the concept of "free love" in its communal society. That legacy lives on at Mosswood Grove. "There's something in the soil here," Ambrose says in the first episode. "Things won't stay quiet." Season 1 of The Leftovers, which was also set in the region and was concerned with matters of faith, is a clear influence here, so much so that USA should probably be paying royalties to HBO. (The Sinner isn't as relentlessly depressing as The Leftovers Season 1, though.)
To be fair, The Sinner still has plenty of time to go off the rails. One bad twist could sink it. But through the first three episodes, it's a confident, intelligent and tense improvement on a solid first season.
The Sinner airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on USA.