USA premieres THE SINNER tonight, an eight-episode miniseries based on the novel of the same name. The international best-selling book by Petra Hammesfahr is a different take on the crime drama, as is the show. Different because it starts out by introducing us to a protagonist who, midway through the pilot, we’ll see do something truly horrible and violent in full public view. There is no question as to whether she is guilty or not, but rather, the drama stems from why this seemingly normal wife and mother would do something so heinous?
There is definitely a reason, and THE SINNER lets us know that, if not the details of it, pretty early on. As we meet Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel, 7th Heaven, The Book of Love), she is acting strange. She doesn’t look happy or comfortable in her job, working for her husband’s family. Her marriage to said husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott, Girls), is strained, at least from her side; it’s not clear Mason really sees there is a problem. She is haunted by some bad memories, and even appears like she might be leaning towards suicidal.
But we don’t know why she’s so troubled. Things seem good. She and Mason have a little boy she adores, and their home and careers seem stable, childcare taken care of, food on the table. They may be around Mason’s family a bit more than Cora would like, but there’s nothing glaringly wrong that would drive an otherwise normal woman to act that way Cora acts.
I debated even mentioning that Cora snaps in this review, so unexpected was it to me, going in cold. But the show description on the official website gives it away, and this is the premise, so it had to be said.
Biel is fantastic as Cora, playing the lead in a way that is engaging and complex. My instinct is to feel sorry for Cora, sure there’s a good reason for her mental instability, rather than condemn her. What trauma has caused her to act like this? How can she get the help she needs, rather than rot away in a prison cell where she doesn’t belong?
Which begs the question, how close is something like this to real life? How many women are there even now sitting behind bars who should instead be in therapy to get better? How many men? THE SINNER really calls into question motivation and how life experiences shape a person. One cannot excuse what we watch Cora do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel for her, and think there’s not a better path for her than a long stint in prison. She’s not a psychopath.
As much as I was sucked into Cora’s story, and to a lesser extent Mason’s, where THE SINNER slows down for me is any time it shifts to the third lead, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, Torchwood: Miracle Day, Independence Day). No offense to Pullman, whom I often enjoy, but I just don’t care about the law enforcement officer trying to understand Cora. What we do see of his character doesn’t paint him in a good light, and for some reason, I had less desire to understand him than I do Cora. Though presumably he recognizes something in her no one else does, which says something about him.
THE SINNER is being billed as a close-ended series, and I’m sure it will be. But it also seems like USA might like to continue it somehow. With True Detective coming back, I’m not sure we need another gritty crime drama like this. But if another protagonist as good as Cora can be found for a second outing, I might be up for it. And I haven’t even watched that much of Cora’s tale yet, which I would very much like to see through.
THE SINNER premieres tonight at 10/9c on USA.
CHIEF TELEVISION CRITIC | Creator of and writer for It's All Been Done Radio Hour live show and podcast. A voracious reader wanting to tell stories of his own, Jerome began writing around the age of 8 and hasn’t stopped, both original works and television reviews. Lives in central Ohio. Favorite current shows include The Walking Dead, Jessica Jones, Flaked, Outlander, and Archer.