Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There’s a certain magic to being in the dark sometimes. USA’s new drama series The Sinner was so far off my radar that the entire hook of the show – and that of the novel it’s based on for that matter – was a complete surprise. That’s both a good and bad thing for the first three hours of the series that I’ve seen, which are blanketed by an eerie calm reminiscent of last year’s short-lived drama Eyewitness, but are so off-the-walls strange that I’m still not entirely sure what I just watched.
It starts off normal enough. Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) is your average working mom, with a job at the local heating and air specialist owned by her husband’s family. She has a cute kid (Grayson Eddey), a flirty rapport with husband Mason (Christopher Abbott), and a nice home across the way from her in-laws. In its first fifteen minutes, The Sinner‘s out-of-the-gate impression is creepy placidity: Cora has all these things, but there’s something clearly off about her.
Her feud with mother-in-law Lorna (Patti D’Arbanville) isn’t just typical frustrations over not being able to pick up her kid because his grandma says he has to finish eating first, it’s bubbling-under-the-surface resentment and spite. Her flirtations with Mason morph into barely-there sexual encounters masked by sleeping pills. Her close residence to her in-laws becomes a suffocating, lurking paranoia. Her wallpaper goes full-on Charlotte Perkins Gilman as she repeatedly flashes back to its Rorschach test-like pattern in times of stress.
It’s all layered and weirdly fascinating, and Biel rocks the anti-glam role without it feeling overplayed or unoriginal – which is a notable accomplishment in an era of TV that is essentially built on the backs of actors muddying themselves up for serious dramatic arcs. Biel feels different because the role feels different, and that’s because The Sinner has one of the gnarliest anti-hero origin stories I’ve ever seen.
For reasons unknown, Cora finds herself at the end of her rope one day on a family outing to a sunny beach, and decides to stab an innocent college student multiple times in cold blood out in the open. The scene is shocking, tense, and energetically shot, and it marks a high point of what the fuck entertainment that the seemingly placid show matches an alarming number of times.
The problem is that it’s hard to tell whether you should be taking The Sinner seriously or not. Cora’s actions catalyze the story’s central “it’s not who, it’s why” mystery, which is not nearly as clever, or original, as the show’s scripts think it is, but there’s undeniable fun to be had here. Biel is a grounding force of unreliability who’s repeatedly a delight to decipher. When she tries to give some sort of context for her actions early on in the season, detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) fights his bosses, claiming that nothing with Cora Tannetti is as it seems.
Cora knows what she did on that beach, and is troubled by it, but claims she herself doesn’t know why – it was just a response triggered by a bad day and one seemingly important song. At one point, Cora admits straight-faced to Mason, “I think there’s something wrong with me,” as she sits in prison for second-degree murder. While some of its oddities can be explained away by awkwardly staged shots and bad writing (keep an eye out for a scene involving Pullman and a bird, which had me laughing aloud), The Sinner sometimes feels self-aware enough to be deviously fun.
The fun of these random, bizarre moments mostly outweigh The Sinner‘s dullest story threads, but there are some exceptions. Although Cora’s backstory is comparably strange, the answers it begins to provide in regards to her current predicament weigh on the side of unbelievability the more the show goes on. Since this is a story that’s entirely dependent on reveals, it could all fall apart down the line. Likewise, although Pullman is solid in the role, any of his marital problem side stories put a screeching halt on the more interesting plot threads.
The out-of-nowhere standout is Abbott, who’s performance grounds the tumultuous strangeness of the show, particularly the more Biel’s character loses her grip. One of the best scenes of the series so far is just of him, his dad, and his mom sitting at their kitchen table – where they had dinner with Cora mere hours before – staring off into a blank distance and wondering how someone he knew so well could do something so heinous.
He’s one of many reasons why I couldn’t help but get pulled into The Sinner, despite its perplexing turns and a somewhat overbearingly ominous tone that doesn’t jibe well with the weirder twists. It’s a show that resonates on the surface more than in any deeper well of mental thought, but there’s something effortlessly salacious and shocking about it that totally lives up to the likely page-turning nature of its source material.