Brace thyself, for this is one very dark and eerie ride! 8-episode drama mystery series The Sinner, starring Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman, was developed by Derek Simonds (When We Rise) and is based on the novel of the same name by German author Petra Hammesfahr (The Lie). The show aired on USA Network between August and September in 2017 and was picked up by Netflix not long ago.
Biel plays Cora Tannetti, a withdrawn, sad woman married to Mason Tannetti (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) and mother to their young boy Laine. Raised by religious zealots, Cora now lives in the pocket of Mason’s overbearing family, working for the Tannetti family business and living next door to his folks.
The handsome couple decide to take their son on a much-needed break to the beach. Suffice it to say, things accelerate in a dark and jaw-dropping direction from here on out. Firstly, Cora decides to take a swim deep into the ocean and tries to drown herself (yikes!). Apparently changing her mind, she sits back down with her family and cuts up a pear. At the same time, a young couple situated in front of her are playing loud music and hugging and kissing. As this unfolds, Cora stands up robotically, approaches them… and repeatedly stabs the young man to death. She then puts the knife down and calmly sits amidst the utter carnage and bloodshed.
Cora is, of course, arrested and taken in for questioning. She apparently has no idea as to what led her to commit such a brazen, horrific act. And so, the crux of The Sinner is set up, and as the viewer is pushed and shoved through the episodes, segment upon tiny segment of the reasons behind this apparently senseless act are unpeeled and unfolded, and it’s these masterful revalations where the show really shines.
Unlike Bloodline, which had a somewhat similar whydunit conceit, the story and narrative within The Sinner unfolds organically and logically, and pays careful attention to pacing. Conversely, Bloodline (rightly) received criticism for simply withholding key plotlines from the viewer arbitrarily, creating an inorganic “mystique” (along with a deflated “bang” when it came to the crunch).
Back to Cora; the gloves are off amongst the township, and her inability to articulate or understand what drove her to such a bloody act weighs heavily against her – both in court and with her family. Her sole beacon is Detective Harry Ambrose (Pullman), and he himself has plenty of troubles and inner demons. The interplay between these two characters is magnetic, and ultimately defines the storyline.
Given the rather quick set up for the plot (18 minutes into episode 1 and it has truly hit the fan), it is initially difficult to understand how the series can span 8 episodes. Such concerns are swiftly put to bed though, as with each episode the viewer is given plenty of meat to chew on and plenty of leftovers to digest ahead of the next. I can’t stress enough: The Sinner doesn’t tease and drip-feed its story arc for the sake of it, but instead doles out perfectly portioned delicacies in each instalment, operating like a perfectly-orchestrated degustation menu.
Whilst the acting is excellent overall, with special praise reserved for Pullman’s flawed Ambrose, it’s Biel’s turn as Cora that is truly show-stopping. The actress erodes any lingering concerns that she may be just another pretty face amidst the Hollywood production line, turning her hand to production behind the scenes (she’s an executive producer on the series) and absolutely embodying her troubled character.
This is a show that benefits strongly from pacing, writing, acting and direction working in complete harmony. Every moment feels of vital and central importance, and the flow of how and when the key plot points unfold is simply superb.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10