With her long bangs and longer face, Jessica Biel is a worried woman in The Sinner, an eight-part series premiering on the USA network on Wednesday. She has plenty to be morose about: In the opening moments of this production, she kills a man on a beach. I’ll set the scene: Her character, Cora, is having a nice day of sun and sand with her husband and child, then she gets up off their blanket, walks over and slashes a guy to death. What? Where did that come from?
Where that came from is the story of The Sinner, which is based on a German bestselling novel, adapted to small-town America by writer Derek Simonds (When We Rise), and produced by Biel herself. Immediately arrested for her shocking crime, Cora pleads guilty, but the judge still wants a trial, especially after a homicide cop played by Bill Pullman insists there’s a lot more to this bloody scene than meets the eye.
Having seen the first three episodes, I can say that The Sinner is at once intriguing and frustrating. Certainly you want to know why Cora has behaved the way she has. Much of the time, the structure of the show places you in the shoes of Pullman’s Detective Harry Ambrose, who’s searching for clues to Cora’s motivations. Those shoes are a tad uncomfortable for some of us, however, since ol‘ Harry has a kinky sex habit that pops up at all sorts of inconvenient times. Pullman, to his credit, plays this character with admirable straightforwardness, with just the hint of an impish smile now and then.
A chunk of the opening hours of The Sinner occurs in flashback, as we learn of Cora’s upbringing by a religious-zealot mother and some sort of childhood trauma that, three episodes in, has not yet been made clear. Recovered memories are involved. When Cora experiences something stressful, she tends to zone out and picture in her mind the pattern of some old-fashioned wallpaper — which naturally reminded me of The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s late 19th century novella about a woman’s domestic travails and psychosis as manifested by her obsession with a wallpaper pattern. I’m hoping The Sinner becomes just as fascinatingly claustrophobic as that book.
Biel hasn’t been on TV much since she starred in the long-running WB series 7th Heaven, but if she was hoping her new role would erase memories of Mary Camden, she’s mistaken. Mary, you’ll recall, was a convincingly moody teenager, frequently downcast and sullen, obsessed with basketball and the occasional rebellious act (who can forget the time she vandalized the school gym?). It would not surprise me at all if Mary had grown up to be Cora — hard-bitten and intense.
As far as her performance goes, Biel goes full Farrah Fawcett in The-Burning-Bed: She is convincingly bedraggled, pulled to emotional extremes. It’s a role that is frequently not particularly sympathetic, which is why an actor as innately charming as Biel might have been drawn to it — it demonstrates range, in the simplest terms. Whether viewers tuning in hoping for a more glam Biel will become engrossed and stick around for Cora’s possible redemption is The Sinner’s artistic and commercial gamble.
The Sinner airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on USA.
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