Cast: Jessica Biel, Christopher Abbott, Bill Pullman
Mystery programs usually revolve around apprehending a culprit. A detective or a team is introduced to track down the murderer of the week. USA Network’s new drama The Sinner differentiates itself quickly by dispersing with that traditional mystery quickly. The culprit is identified early in the first episode. The motive, however, is the real mystery at play.
The main character here is a housewife married with one young child. She’s successful and charming. She likes her life orderly, which explains the diligence she displays folding her clothes neatly on a chair before heading off to a day at the beach with her husband and young son.
Unfortunately for her, something changes on the shore.
Upon witnessing a young couple flirt on the beach, Cora (Jessica Biel) immediately becomes unbalanced and murders a seemingly innocent student. She kills without hesitation. Her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) and her son watch as the tragedy unfurls. There are dozens of witnesses and Cora admits she’s guilty. But nothing more. The big mystery is why she committed this heinous act.
Biel, in an understated performance, must hide her character’s true intentions as the story unfolds and she does it compellingly. She’s playing a woman seemingly in shock but cognitively aware of her past and through a series of flashbacks, the show’s creators slowly but surely reveal elements of Cora’s past that still seemingly haunt her.
It’s hard to empathize with her character (especially after witnessing the violence of the attack) but Biel’s vulnerability lets viewers into her world one moment at a time. The character knows what she’s been through but the audience doesn’t, setting up a neat disconnect between the viewer and the lead character.
The supporting cast features Bill Pullman as a detective and Abbott as Cora’s conflicted husband. These character fill in some of the gaps here while Cora oftentimes remains silent. Pullman knows there’s more to the story — in a way, he’s the character that we can most relate to — but doesn’t understand what Cora could be hiding (what secrets does she have that are worth murdering over). His diligent pursuit of the truth raises interesting questions that feel different than the ones typically posed in procedurals like this.
On the other hand, Mason is the character who seemingly represents the normalcy of Cora’s former life. His character doesn’t seem to recognize his wife anymore. Abbott— best known for his work on Girls— can convey his feelings without speaking and here he does it in a supporting role that nicely contrasts with Cora’s enigmatic personality.
After two episodes, a secondary storyline featuring the detective’s ailing marriage seems less interesting than the main story but one hopes that that plot will eventually add more layers to his character.
Creator Derek Simonds though has crafted a uniquely satisfying mystery here and each episode adds more questions into this world. Just when the audience may feel satisfied that the core mystery is solved, another development adds another layer to the story.
The Sinner is set to air eight episodes this year and after watching the first two, it feels like the mystery has only begun to unfold.
Review by: John Hanlon