The Sinner Review: A Fine Detective Story

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The Sinner stars Jessica Biel as Cora, a young, overwrought mother with seemingly too much on her plate and a husband, Mason, all too willing to chuck himself onto the couch while she, and his mother next door, do all the hard work.

After a particularly grueling day of Mama's boy Mason getting on her last nerve, on a simple day at the beach, Cora suddenly drives a fruit paring knife into the fun-loving young doctor on a nearby beach blanket. She has no idea why.

Enter Bill Pullman's Detective Ambrose with a whole host of issues of his own, including the one that won't allow him to let even the most cut and dried case be pried from his stubborn fingers.

A Day at the Beach - The Sinner Season 1 Episode 1

On the surface, The Sinner seems as though it's going to be a daring look into the psyche of a wholesome young woman who has it all and the drive of the one man who dares reach inside of her fragile, scarred mind for answers.

There is a bit of that to The Sinner, sure, but after watching three episodes, I've discovered the series is far more dedicated to Detective Ambrose and his dogged determination to follow the clues, just like any good detective would than any psychological behavior of Biel's Cora.

Whether that was intentional or not remains to be seen. After all, there are five more installments to uncover all of the answers.

Jessica Biel as Cora - The Sinner

Cora's story is told mainly through flashbacks to her childhood, and that leaves most of the emoting Biel does in the present rather dull by comparison.

This isn't going to be an Emmy worthy performance for Biel by any means unless crocodile tears have come up the ranks in the nominations process because the straight-faced Cora spends most of her time allowing tears to seep down her cheeks without fully crying.

Because the murder took place so quickly after the opening credits rolled, we learned relatively nothing of the present life Cora lives before she was shuffled off in handcuffs. 

What we did witness wasn't what you'd call happiness. What Cora later discusses about her life with her husband and child, though, wavers from the best to not wanting it back. The lack of emotion never gives you the ability to understand the character fully.

All of that is left up to Pullman's Ambrose.

The Police File - The Sinner Season 1 Episode 1

Little by little, Ambrose is unmasked as a bit of a sinner himself. In fact, by the end of the third episode, it's unclear whether the series' title is referring to Cora or Ambrose. Hopefully, that's by design.

Ambrose has flaws. A lot of them. He cheated on his wife and didn't treat her as a wife would want to be treated. If she knew what the audience learns, she'd have a whole plethora of topics for couples therapy. 

But, at least Ambrose goes to couples therapy and honestly seems to love the wife he's lost. 

I suppose Ambrose can be called a quirky man, but the quirks aren't written most endearingly. That's the thing about The Sinner overall. Nothing reaches out and grabs you, whether it's to be endearing, quirky or even downright terrible. 

Under normal circumstances, one should be aghast at a woman stabbing a young man on a beach, for example, but it evoked little emotion while watching. Cora's flashbacks are the closest to evoking all the things they're probably supposed to, but hatred is what stands out. 

It's as if there is an important piece of the puzzle, that special ingredient that digs into your heart and grabs you, that's missing from The Sinner.

Ambrose Looks for Clues - The Sinner Season 1 Episode 1

But what The Sinner does well is connect the dots. While I believe the attempt was to be a psychological thriller, instead it's a good ol' detective story. And Ambrose is a good detective.

He has a keen eye for seeing what others miss, and those insights lead him to more questions, more clues, and ultimately more answers. Cora's story is a lot more complex than you can imagine at the opening, and only Ambrose's detective work uncovered the reality of what's missing from her life.

His desire to put it together and how he goes about it is interesting to watch in its own right, but not nearly as interesting as it would have been if we had been more involved in the psychological aspect of why someone chooses to commit murder.

If you go into watching The Sinner with a more traditional whodunnit expectation merely trading out the who for why you might have an enjoyable viewing experience. With Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman on board, I was hoping for a lot more than enjoyable.

The Sinner premieres Wednesday, August 2 at 10/9c on USA Network.

Review

Editor Rating: 3.0 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Broadcast Television Journalists Association (BTJA), enjoys mentoring writers, wine, and passionately discussing the nuances of television. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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The Sinner Quotes

Cora: No. I've never met him before.
Det. Leroy: Then why kill him?
Cora [sneers]: Because they were playing that music and they were turnin' it up.

Ron: You should go to the station.
Lorna: You need to eat something.