As we live in a TV era filled with excessive violence and mindless rated R content, The Sinner finds a way to still stand out. The show plays it relatively close to the chest, showing only one pivotal moment in the pilot of this USA Network drama. The show centers around a woman named Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) who savagely assaults and kills someone without motive. This incident drives the rest of the show and from that moment on you could only help but to be captivated. The Sinner sucks you into the mind of Cora Tannetti and leaves you wanting more after every episode.
The show revolves around one question, Why? Why did someone who was seemingly living the perfect life suddenly snap? Did she know the victim? Was it her medication? Was it her past? Does the constant imagery throughout the show foreshadow what happened? Why would she throw away her whole life for a random killing?
The show may sound violent but it’s purposeful violence and not a matter of bloodthirsty gore. The show still shelters viewers by adding swift cuts and camera changes between actions and reaction shots, making it hard to see exactly what’s going on. Just from the heightened reactions and pressure its no secret horrifying acts are taking place, but the staging spares particular details that it will reveal throughout the story. It’s not that the producers and show runners want to hide details but it is more that they understand timing is everything. Every violent or monumental action occurs slightly before or after you expect it to, subverting expectations and that feature is what makes the show so enthralling. The buildup acts as a testament to the way the series creator and writer Derek Simonds along with the directors simulated hyper realistic violence. The violence in The Sinner is the kind that seems to erupt from the dullness of everyday life. It rattles the viewers as well as the community within the show, and that realness makes us invested in the police’s attempts to figure out how something so out of character happened.
The latter half of the season is executed to a tee, carefully constructed to jerk and manipulate the audience through careful story telling and world class acting. The premise of the show overall isn’t a completely original, the unique twists and turns it takes sets it apart from other shows in its genre. Instead of playing up the violence in the show, we focus more on the psychology of our main protagonists. We see the show’s heroine commit the brutal act in broad daylight in the presence of a large crowd and the remainder of the show tries to get to the bottom of why she did it. Playing up the mental instability in our protagonists just adds to the intrigue as even Cora isn’t certain, or maybe shes playing everyone like a fiddle.
The show put a lot of weight on Jessica Biel as is, but she elevates the show to another level. Biel nails the body language, mannerisms and psychology of a small-town woman who was raised in an oppressively religious household and it is almost too vivid to watch. Flashback scenes that are peppered throughout the series almost feels too evasive and personal, and it’s often hard to decipher what exactly her motivations are. Chris Abbott, who plays Cora’s husband, brings a sternness to his character that helps balance Cora’s instability and watching their relationship dissolve is one of the better arcs of the show.
When you get down to it the show is a murder mystery that withholds information and piles on details and red herrings to create suspense and keep us watching. That’s not to be seen as a knock against the show, just a reoccurring feature in television, particular in the genre it resides in.
The show’s secondary, parallel story line which stars Bill Pullman as Detective Harry Ambrose, is one filled with just as many surprises as Cora’s story. Ambrose, who is involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with a waitress played by Meredith Holzman,has more then enough demons to deal with. Their scenes together and the submissive personality that Ambrose has behind closed doors is compelling as his marriage struggles.
We get to know Ambrose as a person, basking in his insecurities and as the episodes progress, he slowly but surely becomes the focal point of the show. The more time we spend with him and the more facts we’re privy to, the more we’re able to garner 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 chaos and trying to understand his world and doing ordinary things. In contrast 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 the show feels like an invasion of privacy, peering into the lives of individuals during a traumatic time. Every mystery is ultimately an exercise in observation and people-watching. The killing that starts the show is just the spark for the psychological rabbit hole that The Sinner takes you on and by the end has you craving for more.