The Sinner


(U.S., 2017–2021)
Created by Derek Simonds

 Review by Iva Apostolova

The Sinner is a series created by Derek Simonds, whose credits include producer of Call Me by Your Name and writer on Seven and a Match and The Astronaut Wives Club. Each season is independent and unrelated to any other, the only connection being detective Harry Ambrose played by the veteran Bill Pullman. Although the seasons are not linked by plot or character, the style of presenting the story and the camera work are unmistakably homogeneous.

Each season contains eight episodes, always titled “Part I”, “Part II”, etc., as though the creators did not want to give anything away while keeping the viewers on the edge of their seats. The mood is always somber, the unfolding of the story is slow at first, and the camera work reveals a lot of pastels and semi-dark tones no matter where the story takes place.

Apart from the beautiful aesthetic, a feat in and of itself, The Sinner is not your run-of-the-mill detective show. Its cleverness comes from two main, interconnected sources. At the beginning, the story in each season is enveloped in supernatural mystery of some sort. Season 1, starring Jessica Biel, is about a woman plagued by strange visions which make her become either violent or catatonic. Season 2 barks up the spiritual cult tree, while Season 3 is about Nietzsche’s philosophy of life. Season 4 appears to be about witchcraft and magic. As the plot yarn uncoils, however, the viewer discovers that in the end, there are no supernatural forces involved but only human – all too human – stories of desire, jealousy, fear and love. And that is the second source of the show’s power: the human condition is, without fail, the main protagonist in every episode.

While Bill Pullman has never been a favourite of mine (I have always considered him a bit of a one-trick pony), he fits the mold of the damaged, plagued-by-grief, man-of-few-words detective rather well. The viewer is made privy to detective Ambrose’s troubled past and tormented self but without the usual sentimentality or glorification that other crime shows abound with. As a matter of fact, the observant spectator will notice that Ambrose’s inner struggles always mirror in some way or other at least one of the season’s protagonists’ own battles. That’s precisely what gives Ambrose the compassion needed to connect with the people he’s investigating.

Although I enjoyed all four seasons, my favourite by far is Season 3, for obvious reasons. Episode 1 opens with a gruesome car accident which has caused the suspicious death of Nick (played by the charming Chris Messina, whom viewers may recognize from the edgy Sharp Objects, opposite Amy Adams). His best friend from college, Jamie (played by the gorgeous Matt Bomer), quickly becomes detective Ambrose’s prime suspect. But all is not what it appears to be. The rest of the season sets to reveal the unusual bond between Nick and Jamie built around their love of Nietzsche. Any artform that incorporates philosophy, and particularly existentialist philosophy such as Nietzsche’s, has my eye and ear. For the uninitiated, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose personal life was plagued by debilitating migraines and generally ill health, is considered the anticipator of Freud (to me the connection between the two is “no Nietzsche, no Freud!”) and one of the most controversial philosophers of all times. He proclaimed the death of God, signing some of his manuscripts as the Antichrist, while at the same time preaching “severe self-love” and heroism. Nietzsche, both in his life and his philosophy, despised charity and compassion, instead prophesizing the coming of the Uber-Mensch, a strong (in body and mind), beautiful creature destined to be the master of his own life and death.

And so, the rest of the season unfolds the unconventional life philosophy of Nick and Jamie, a philosophy which brings them both to the very edge where death is teased and taunted, and, most importantly, desperately attempted to be conquered.

 TV show

4 seasons, 8 episodes per season
Running time per episode: 45 mins.
Available on Netflix and Apple TV

 Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College and a regular film reviewer for the Glebe Report.

Share this