The third season of “The Sinner” starts with a simple car crash on a country road in the middle of the night.
What seems like a routine investigation for veteran detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) opens to reveal a dark and twisted relationship between two former college friends that reverberates through the leafy suburb of Dorchester, New York.
It also confirms for Ambrose, afflicted by sciatica and bothered by some family tensions, that retirement is out of the question.
What Harry finds at the site of the crash is a man’s body poking through the car’s windshield, very dead.
His name is Nick Haas (Chris Messina, “Sharp Objects”). Nick is a stranger in town with connections to the man who becomes the prime suspect in his murder — Jamie Burns (Matt Bomer), a well-liked high-school English teacher expecting his first child with his beautiful wife Leela (Parisa Fitz-Henley, who played Meghan Markle in the Lifetime movie “Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance”).
When Nick knocks on Jamie’s door hours before the crash, Burns is not happy to see him.
It’s been 18 years since their friendship, which included some sexual experimentation, ended and his reentry puts Burns over the edge.
“The Sinner,” created by Derek Simonds, employs some Gothic elements to track Jamie’s anxiety but there are some welcome and intriguing surprises along the way. The crash takes place on the access road to a house owned by Sonya (Jessica Hecht), a painter with a penchant for painting male nudes (she says they make her see things more clearly).
Her connection to Burns and his dead friend is not immediately clear, but she later discreetly photographs Burns as he waits to the commuter train that takes him to work.
Matt Bomer’s Jamie Burns gets a grilling from Pullman’s detective.Matt Bomer’s Jamie Burns gets a grilling from Bill Pullman’s detective.Peter Kramer/USA Network
Ambrose’s investigation also takes him to a professor at the college attended by Burns and Haas. He reveals the boys’ affinity for the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and his concept of the “Superman,” which prompted the boys to engage in risky behavior as a way to test their mettle. As Ambrose tries to understand the psychological hold the dead man holds over Burns, “The Sinner” continues to intrigue and keep us guessing.
Much of the success of this season’s story has to do with some smart casting. Bomer has the conventional good looks of a Ted Bundy, the guy no one would suspect of any wrongdoing, and he imbues Burns with a laid-back arrogance of someone who knows it’s going to be hard to pin anything on him, most dramatically illustrated when he tries to strangle a hospice patient.
Sonya the painter is a role that would ordinarily go to someone like Connie Britton, so it’s refreshing to see Broadway actress Hecht take a crack at the part because she is both subtle and unsettling.
Messina is truly creepy as the outcast Haas, who proves more dangerous dead than alive.
Pullman plays Ambrose with a mixture of compassion, guile and circumspection. He doesn’t want to cede ground to the younger guys coming up in the force. and he works hard to lull Burns into a sense of false security and he wants to protect the painter while not seeming too vulnerable.
He’s the engaging center of this entertaining puzzle.