The crime-time limited series has been a blessing to television. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson was a courtroom thriller that interrogated issues of race, HBO’s Big Little Lies was a murder mystery that investigated issues of gender, and both did well by their deep themes while delivering fantastic genre entertainment. The Sinner, an eight-episode adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s 2007 best-seller, tries for something unique, a whydunit instead of a whodunit that deconstructs ideas about good, evil, and identity to create elevated pulp. But it’s as fun as a trip to a confessional booth and doesn’t achieve the transcendence it covets.
This show full of fallen souls focuses on Jessica Biel’s Cora, who initially presents as a cliché of female misery. She’s got a self-centered husband (Christopher Abbott), smothering in-laws, a dull job in their family business, and a toddler who wants only her. But the truth of her innate depression and deadening circumstances is more nuanced than it appears. Fragments of memory flick at prior horrors and regrets. Tragedy. Abuse. A shame-oriented Catholic upbringing. An image of a woman beckoning Cora into a hotel room. Biel’s own past nourishes these layers: The Sinner is her first major small-screen work since her star-making turn on the long-running Christian family drama 7th Heaven, playing rebel daughter Mary. It’s an assertive bid to be born again as a prestige TV actress.
One hot day at the beach, with her existential crisis boiling, Cora has a psychotic break. She stabs a young man to death in broad daylight, with husband, kids, and dozens more watching. What would seem to be an open-and-shut case for Det. Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) becomes an obsessive inquiry. What triggered Cora? Did the victim actually let his murder happen? And why does Harry — who’s got demons and guilt of his own — care so damn much?
The premise and psychology of the main characters capture your interest. But the oppressive portentousness squanders it — the heavy-handed slo-mo and symbolism, the glum gravitas of the acting. Biel’s intense performance of despair isn’t helped by a story that keeps Cora a cipher or by clipped scenes that don’t let her stretch and breathe.
Hopefully, that will improve as the series unfolds. Yet the critiques of female roles and religion are familiar and superficial. Pullman’s eccentric grizzled cop could have been a delightfully weird and poignant element in a weird piece of work — he’s nerdy about plants, he’s a sexual masochist, he wanders the night in his underwear — but he’s sabotaged by bad writing and confused tone. The mystery might keep you, but there are too many flaws to love The Sinner.