In a TV era increasingly defined by trauma and violence, The Sinner still stands out. There’s only one savage act in the pilot of this USA Network drama about a woman named Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) who kills someone seemingly without motive, and it’s comparatively brief: It’s the incident that drives the rest of the show, a police procedural that’s mainly interested in psychology. But it’s staged with such unglamorous suddenness that the first time I watched it, I looked away from the screen. The second time I watched it, sitting in the audience at the television festival I programmed, I looked away again.
It’s not a matter of gore. The cutting between actions and reaction shots makes it hard to see exactly what’s going on. You know it’s horrendous, but the staging spares you physical particulars that it will reveal momentarily. It’s more a matter of timing: Every violent action occurs slightly before or after you think it’s going to, and that’s what makes it so upsetting. I skipped the scene entirely when revisiting The Sinner to write this review. I’m a lifelong horror fan, so this degree of aversion is rarely an issue for me. It’s a testament to the way that series creator and writer Derek Simonds and pilot director Antonio Campos staged it: If you’ve ever witnessed real violence, the kind that seems to erupt from the dull fabric of everyday life like magma from the earth, and that is as clumsy as it is shocking, you’ll appreciate how this moment has been executed. It rattles the viewer as well as the community within the show, and that makes us invested in the police’s attempts to figure out how something like this could have happened.
The rest of The Sinner is superbly executed, though less unique than its marketing would have you believe. USA has been selling this series as a “whydunit” as opposed to a “whodunit,” because we see the show’s heroine commit the act in broad daylight in the presence of what looks like a couple hundred witnesses, and the remainder of the show tries to get to the bottom of why she did it. Even Cora isn’t certain, or maybe she just isn’t talking: As technically strong as Biel is, nailing the body language and psychology of a small-town woman who was raised in an oppressively religious household, it’s often hard to tell if the character is taciturn and introverted or if the filmmakers are intentionally making her abstract so that the concept of the show can work. (Former Girls cast member Chris Abbott, who plays Cora’s husband, is equally strong in a more emotive role that might not be as sensitive as we first think.) When you get down to it, the show is still a murder mystery that withholds information and piles on contrivance to create suspense and keep us watching. That’s not a rap against the show, just a characteristic of the genre in all of its permutations. If The Sinner granted us full access to the contents of its heroine’s head, the story would be over in ten minutes.
Nevertheless, USA Network, Simonds, and Campos deserve credit for refusing to duplicate the usual template for this kind of show. TV murder mysteries often withhold facts cynically and arbitrarily, in a way that suggests investigative incompetence; even the more ambitious or pretentious ones often end with the clichéd revelation that the rich guy or the rich guy’s son or a crooked police officer actually did it. The Sinner proceeds according to its own internal logic, and while I would quibble with the presentation of one or two bits of information in the first couple of episodes, there are no moments that feel egregiously contrived or unfair to the audience.
The show’s secondary, parallel story line — which stars Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose, who is involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with a waitress played by Meredith Holzman — is less momentous but ultimately more compelling because both the actor and the character are more accessible to us. We get to know Ambrose as we might get to know a person we’ve just met: The more time we spend with him and the more facts we’re privy to, the more we’re able to glean information not just through stories he tells and references he makes, but by looking at him and listening to him. We get much more of a sense of Ambrose living in the world and doing ordinary things. That’s not so much the case with Cora, who is defined mainly by the most formative events of her life and by the silences that fill her everyday existence. The Sinner is at its best when we’re just allowed to watch its characters move and speak and interact with each other, or hide from each other. After all, every mystery is ultimately an exercise in people-watching. The killing is just the spark for our voyeurism, the park bench that we sit on while watching the human parade pass by.