Around the midpoint of the first episode of The Sinner, USA Network’s new grim limited series, Cora Tennetti (Jessica Biel) suddenly leaves her husband and child on their beach blanket and stabs Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd), a young man, to death on a neighboring blanket. The attack is bloody, brutal, and clear-cut: a docile wife, mother, and bookkeeper murdered a seeming stranger in the middle of the day on a crowded beach without any obvious reason, surrounded by a multitude of witnesses. The case itself is open and shut for all intents and purposes.
As the USA series’ marketing material stresses, however, the story is not about how the killing went down but rather why Cora took her pear-cutting knife and stuck it into Belmont seven times. Refreshingly, the focus of the series is not on reconstructing an act or cutting through a conspiracy meant to shield wealthy perpetrators, but to understand the murderer as an otherwise decent person who was driven to kill this man. There are flashbacks to Cora’s childhood in a severely religious home, where her mother demanded total obedience and a rigid, unkind view of faith in the hopes of healing Cora’s younger, very sick sister. There are also flashes back to when she met her husband, played by Chris Abbott, as well as a few more cryptic memories of a wallpapered room and an unknown woman looking back at her. These scenes make for a good tease and give a genuine sense of mystery to the proceedings, but you also don’t get much of who Cora is or what she thinks.
For all the backstory that creator Derek Simonds, producer-director Antonio Campos, he of Afterschool and Simon Killer, and their creative team display in the first three episodes, Cora remains largely a cypher, a prominent cog in the mechanism of the story rather than a fully explored character. She doesn’t seem to have friends to confess to and her relationship with her husband is familiarly drawn as more about convenience and stasis than genuine attraction or like-mindedness. In the writing, the character is denoted more by her psychological make-up than someone who goes to the grocery store, deals with an overbearing mother-in-law, or helps run a successful local business. She’s more cautionary tale than a flesh-and-blood woman.
This lack of imagination should not be thrown at Biel’s feet. The undervalued actress gives her all to define Cora outside of the show’s simplistic, grueling machinations of plot but the writing insists on obvious symbolism to get its point across, such as Campos’ close-up on Abbott’s husband leading Cora’s hand to his crotch. The show’s creators are perfectly happy to trace the deepest, darkest secrets that Cora hides away but they seem genuinely uninterested in her opinions. Does she have a hobby? A favorite book? Does she read or watch the news and have any thoughts about the world at large? Does she get excited or passionate about anything at all? In the view of the series, she does not. All that defines her is the most psychological scarring events in her lifetime, which is alluring at first but quickly finds its limitations.
The same could be said about Bill Pullman‘s Detective Ambrose, the main investigator on Cora’s case who is defined most prominently through his dedication to a quasi-sado-masochist relationship with a dominating waitress (Meredith Holzman). Pullman is given more quiet moments to play with than Biel, to illustrate how his chaotic inner life can seep out when no one seems to be looking, but the show’s forge to understand character over plot is damned before the first episode ends.
What’s left is an amiable and largely engaging murder mystery, gorgeously lensed and smartly paced but more notable for its control of mood and atmosphere than substance or character. If the point of the series is to uncover the reasons why Cora killed Belmont, there is a modicum of satisfaction in watching her past incrementally revealed. That’s really all the series’ creators seem to care about here, and this attitude diminishes what might have been an electrifying character study into a passable entertainment.