The Sinner. USA. Wednesday, August 2, 10 p.m.
The first question any viewer is going to ask about the cable network USA's new crime drama The Sinner is, "How are they possibly going to string this thing out for eight episodes?" A murder is committed, its perpetrator captured, and her voluntary and unambiguous confession obtained, all in the first five minutes. Even allowing for a couple of arty German-expressionist dream sequences to cryptically express her remorse and perhaps a big dance number for the warden and guards as she enters prison, what's left to fill out the remaining seven and a half hours?
The second question, a few minutes later, is, "Are you kidding—how can we possibly get to the bottom of this in just eight episodes?" For The Sinner quickly morphs into the least forthright crime drama, an opaque and intriguingly inverted tale in which crime and punishment are difficult to tell apart.
Jessica Biel (7th Heaven) plays the killer, Cora Tannetti, a seemingly happy young wife and mother who, during a family picnic, inexplicably lunges across the lakefront beach to hack a total stranger to death with a paring knife. Not only are there dozens of witnesses to identify her and testify she acted without provocation, she immediately admits it and refuses to even see a lawyer.
The extraordinary open-and-shutness of the crime confounds Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman, Independence Day), the botany-obsessed homicide detective assigned to the case. Surveying a wilting forest across the lake from the crime scene, he pronounces it "an ecosystem out of balance," a summation of his view of the ecology of the murder as much as that of the woods.
The situation quickly goes from out of balance to out of control as even the simplest questions Ambrose asks go unanswered. Nonetheless, tantalizing evidence emerges that Cora's past is not the clean slate her friends and family believe: There are allusions not only to a childhood in bondage to religious guilt, but a sinister sexual entanglement in more recent times. Even more directly tied to the case are hints that the murder victim—a young doctor—not only recognized Cora but perhaps even welcomed her attack.
These halting disclosures leads to funhouse-mirror scenes in which the homicide detective is trampling Miranda rules and browbeating a lawyerless suspect in search of evidence to prove to her innocent, while she evades and obstructs justice to protect her guilty plea.
That role reversal may not even be the The Sinner's most captivating. Biel's artful performance as Cora makes her into a warm, winning protagonist who is also an inveterate liar. She lies incessantly, about the incidental and the important alike, even when her inventions will easily be detected. Only when Ambrose pleads in frustration that a few truthful answers could win back her old life does her response carry a chilly ring of truth: "What makes you think I want my life back?"
Her pursuer-savior Ambrose, meanwhile, has his own problematic relationship with the truth. He's in danger of being undone by the web of deception he's spun around his tawdry sex life. The detective's prescription for an ailing rubber plant he sees at the local hospital—"It needs more light than it's getting" —applies to nearly everything and everybody in The Sinner.
The Sinner, very loosely based on a book by German novelist Petra Hammesfahr, was created and largely written by Derek Simonds, running his own show for the first time after spending some time on the writing staffs of various forgettable miniseries. From the two episodes of The Sinner made available for review, he seems to have an adroit touch, weaving the show's many flashbacks into a dark tapestry of vengeance and remorse. "I never thought I would have a normal life," Cora tells her husband at one point. Luckily for us, she didn't.