In the era of Peak TV, shows have become so cinematic they’ve started to infiltrate movie festivals. That was the case on Tuesday, when the Tribeca Film Festival saw the premiere of The Sinner, an eight-part limited series set to hit USA Network this August. Based on Petra Hammesfahr’s novel of the same name, The Sinner stars Jessica Biel as Cora, a seemingly regular woman who turns her small town upside-down when she suddenly murders a fellow beachgoer on a bright sunny day with seemingly no motive or explanation. Bill Pullman plays Harry Ambrose, the aging detective trying to piece things together, and Christopher Abbott plays Cora’s unsuspecting husband Mason.
After the screening, EW editor in chief Henry Goldblatt hosted a panel with Biel, Pullman, Abbott, showrunner Derek Simonds, and premiere director Antonio Campos. Here are five things we learned about what to expect from the show when it officially debuts in August.
1. The material captivated Biel
In addition to starring in The Sinner, Biel is also an executive producer. She explained that she was drawn to the series because of her reaction to the novel. “When I read the book, every step of the way was a shock,” Biel said. “I just feel like nothing can shock me anymore. There’s nothing too weird, nothing too dark. We’ve all seen it all in a sense, the way we’re exposed and have access to everything. But every time there was a surprise in the book, it was a genuine surprise for me. It just felt incredibly rare to find a piece of material where you didn’t expect every twist and turn along the way.”
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2. Pullman’s background influenced his portrayal
Pullman’s Harry immediately stands out among the residents of The Sinner’s small town. For one thing, the detective has a complicated relationship with his dominatrix, but he also just doesn’t see the world the same way as his fellow residents; he thinks there’s more to Cora’s story than an open-and-shut case. Pullman said his take on the character and the larger material was influenced by his own experience growing up in a similar community. “In a small town, when something like this happens, there’s a lot of good reasons not to ask why,” Pullman said. “There’s a lot of denial in this. There’s a lot of ‘Let’s get this over with — there’s only so much shame we can take.’ When a huge trauma lands in the middle of a small town, people just want it to go away. That is what I remember about small towns. My godfather was an ex-policeman. He used to take me fishing, and I remember thinking, ‘He has a lot of secrets.”
3. The mystery distinguishes The Sinner from other crime dramas
At first, The Sinner resembles shows like Twin Peaks and The Killing in its focus on how one unexpected murder rocks a small town. But unlike those crime dramas, the mystery here is somewhat different: We already know who did it. “Most crime dramas are about catching a serial killer or a whodunit. In this case, we already know everything about the crime except why,” Simonds explained. “So immediately that allows you as a storyteller to focus all on the psychology. It’s not about the minutiae of clues and chases and stuff. It’s really an opportunity to peel back the onion and really investigate this character. Cora’s journey prompts the same excavation in Mason and Ambrose too.”
4. Flashbacks are key
Although the first episode of The Sinner is primarily concerned with establishing the main conflict of the show, it also has time for some flashbacks — both to the murder itself and even farther back to Cora’s strange childhood. Simonds told viewers to expect more where that came from. “The flashbacks become a growing piece of the show,” Simonds said. “They tell a story we follow throughout, and they become more and more significant.”
5. The show straddles fantasy and reality
The brutal killing in the premiere does legitimately come out of the blue, but there are small hints beforehand that all is not right with Cora’s mind. The most striking example comes when Cora swims in a lake by herself, apparently contemplating suicide, before eventually returning to the beach. Simonds and Campos talked about how they made that scene so surreal. “We envisaged the swimming sequence as Cora’s private journey where she’s testing this limit in herself,” Simonds said. “It was beautifully shot by our cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, along with all of Antonio’s beautiful work. We wanted it to be slightly dreamy, like this water is her going into her mind, her unconscious.”
The Sinner premieres Wednesday, Aug. 2 on USA Network.