The Sinner USA Jessica Biel Cora

The Sinner Review: Jessica Biel Goes Dark in USA's Haunting 'Whydunit'

The Sinner is an interesting experiment in form: Can you still have a whodunit when you already know who done it? USA Network’s new eight-episode crime thriller starring Jessica Biel — debuting this Wednesday at 10/9c — is in the bleak, methodical vein of Top of the Lake and Broadchurch, with plenty of plot twists and moody atmosphere, but with zero mystery about the identity of the culprit. Rather than a whodunit, it’s more of a “whydunit”… and that might be part of the problem.

The Sinner USA Jessica Biel Cora MasonBiel plays Cora, a young mom living in a sleepy town in upstate New York, and the pilot’s opening scenes are mundane, but unmistakably tinged with dread. We know something bad’s about to happen… and indeed, it does. During a beach outing with her husband and son, Cora commits a harrowing, graphic act of violence — one that’s made all the more terrifying by the mystery surrounding it: Why? Cora’s as stunned by what she did as everyone else, but she soon hints at some dark truths lying just beneath the surface. When she’s told how she might be able to get her life back, she snaps, “What makes you think I want my life back?”

VIDEOS The Sinner Trailer: Jessica Biel Commits Vicious Crime in USA Network Drama

After the initial shock of Cora’s vicious outburst, The Sinner sets about answering that “why” question by diving deep into her psyche: a tangle of repressed childhood trauma, violent self-loathing and unexpressed anger, all just waiting to erupt. This is a great acting showcase for Biel, who drops the makeup and disappears into a difficult, haunted character. It’s not a huge leap to call this Biel’s most daring performance — her post-7th Heaven résumé is an uninspiring mix of dumb rom-coms and failed action franchises — but she absolutely rises to the challenge. She makes us feel on a visceral level how hollow, how wrung-out, how at the very end of her rope Cora must feel.

The Sinner USA Bill Pullman Harry AmbroseGirls alum Christopher Abbott does solid work, too, as Cora’s husband Mason, who struggles to make sense of his wife’s inexplicable actions. Bill Pullman co-stars as grizzled detective Harry Ambrose, who’s determined to nail down why Cora did this, but he’s saddled with a shaky subplot about Harry’s personal life, including a silly dominatrix angle. (Is it a rule now that every TV drama has to give one of its characters a scandalous sexual kink?) And we never get a satisfying answer as to why Harry involves himself so deeply in Cora’s case. There’s an uncomfortable subtext hovering over all this: Would everyone care so much, and would the authorities be working so hard to explain Cora’s behavior, if she weren’t a pretty white woman?

The Sinner does have a nicely lyrical visual style: It’s shot with a keen eye for detail, with an appropriately gloomy, unsettling musical score. (Again, fans of morose crime dramas like Top of the Lake and Broadchurch will recognize the vibe here.) But strangely, the more we learn about Cora’s complicated past, the less interesting her story becomes. The answers we do get are either too pat — the flashbacks to her childhood, with a young Cora being tormented by her fanatically religious mother, are painfully overwrought — or they’re simply erased by the latest plot twist. Cora’s true motivations get lost in a sea of psychobabble, and it all begins to feel a bit like wallowing in misery, for no good reason.

And the central problem remains: If we already know she did the crime, is it really all that compelling to find out why she did it? We’re robbed of that heady jolt of suspense that’s an essential element of shows like this. (It’s like someone stretched the last five minutes of a crime procedural into eight hour-long episodes.) Maybe with more nuanced character development and fewer clichés, The Sinner could’ve turned the “whydunit” into a viable genre. But based on this mixed result, I’ll stick with not knowing who done it, thanks.

THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: USA’s stark crime thriller The Sinner gives Jessica Biel a dream acting opportunity, but it’s too lacking in suspense and nuance.

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  1. If she killed someone because it turns out they were the spawn of Satan and were on the brink of awakening from their human shell to take over the world, that would be a worthy twist and reason to focus on the why over the who. It’s not a new idea, we’ve seen it before, but it’s a valid concept nonetheless.

  2. Kristen says:

    MOTIVE!!!! Great tv show that focused on the why instead of the who. Albeit, while the audience knew who, the detectives on the show didn’t until the end (mostly). Sadly, Motive didn’t get the US following it deserved and is no longer filming, but it was a tremendous show that totally made the “whydunit” genre work.

    Want to check out the Sinner and hoping it’s good. May just set to record on dvr and watch a few episodes at a time. Fingers crossed!

    • Helen says:

      I loved Motive!

      • Kkaylin says:

        Me too! One of my favorites! The two leads we’re great especially Angie! I could have watched that show forever.

    • Aerin says:

      Yeah, why do none of the reviewers of “Sinner” mention “Motive”?!? That was an EXCELLENT show and a clear demonstration of how well the “whydunit” concept can work. I was so sorry to see it cancelled!

  3. Carol says:

    I don’t know – Columbo made it work for many seasons letting the audience know you did it first. Granted the entertainment factor was in watching him prove it.

  4. MMD says:

    Dave Nemetz you have totally lost all credibility with me.

    1. First of all you disliked The Last Tycoon and I really enjoyed it.
    2. You lost me when you called Broadchurch morose. Absolutely loved it and how it kept me on the edge of my seat every episode. It lost nothing when I just recently watched all 3 seasons again (S3 aired in Canada earlier than the U.S.)
    3, You can say what you want about Top of the Lake because I couldn’t get past the first few episodes. Since you think it is morose, that’s a good enough reason for me to give it another try.

    I watch a lot of British/Irish/Scottish/Aussie/Kiwi dramas and what they provide in daytime tv is usually better than most nightime network shows. I will also agree with those above that this type of storytelling worked just fine on Motive (a Canadian show) and Columbo for many years.
    Just the fact that you gave this show a B- but had so much negative to say about how it was done, makes me wonder how you even come up with your review grades.
    I guess I’ll just have to watch it myself and make up my own mind.

    • Christian says:

      You might wanna look up morose. It’s not an insult and aabsolutely applies to dreary dramas like Broadchurch and Top of the Lake.

      • MMD says:

        I did and I still don’t don’t think it applies to Broadchurch.
        sullen and ill-tempered.
        synonyms: sullen, sulky, gloomy, bad-tempered, ill-tempered, dour, surly, sour, glum, moody, ill-humored, melancholy, melancholic, brooding, broody, doleful, miserable, depressed, dejected, despondent, downcast, unhappy, low, down, grumpy, irritable, churlish, cantankerous, crotchety, cross, crabby, cranky, grouchy, testy, snappish, peevish, crusty

        Broadchurch was a murder mystery, full of intrigue, beautiful scenery, glimpses into the lives of families and chock full of superb actors. It wasn’t all doom and gloom.

  5. Gern Blanston says:

    Wasn’t this how Law & Order: Criminal Minds started every episode? You saw the crime, knew who did it, and then it was up to the detectives to find out why. Others have mentioned Columbo and Motive. I would say that this makes “whydunit” already a viable, yet underused, genre.

  6. Kyle says:

    In a sea of whodunnits I think a whydunnit is refreshing and Biel has had some bad roles but she really wowed me in the film “The Tall Man” she was so fantastic that ever since I’ve been waiting for a meaty acting role for her

    • Gauthier says:

      Yes, a thousand times yes!!! The Tall Man and, honestly her turn in Texas Chainsaw Massacre too, made me really appreciate her acting chops and consequently made me sad when I saw how casually she was dismissed as an actress because of some unfortunate roles she had taken on these last few years. I really hope this leads to a renaissance for her.

  7. padraicjacob says:

    I think the difference between Columbo and Motive, which people keep pointing to, and this is that here the characters know right away who did it too. The police aren’t out searching for Cora, like they do in the other two cases.

  8. Liz says:

    I wonder if the premise would work better if a defense lawyer was trying to determine the “why,” as a way to build the defense?

    For cops, establishing motive is helpful in determining the “whodunit.” If you already know exactly who did it (and have indisputable proof) the why would only be useful in how they should be charged. And again, to the defense team.

  9. She’s a great actress.

  10. DarkDefender says:

    It will be refreshing to see the WHYdunit play out instead of a whodunit that we get all.the.time. I hope it moves at an even pace, but not like the molasses that was Broadchurch.

  11. Karen says:

    “Would anyone care ……..if she weren’t a WHITE WOMAN ” ??????? Are you kidding me ? It’s a movie/book !! The author could have made her a purple woman, the story is fantasy, it is fiction. Why throw that statement in your review ?? Grow up and accept this for what it is. Entertainment not documentary of a real event. Sheesh !!

    • NanBernadette says:

      Karen — I totally agree !! This reviewer’s statement of her being a “white woman” has absolutely no bearing on anything. What a ridiculous comment ! Some people just have to throw in their overly-politically correctness everywhere. Give me a break !!

  12. Patty says:

    I think that it is going to be interesting to see something different.

  13. Kate says:

    I read the book (translated version), and it gets realllly weird with incestual stuff. I’m interested to see how they adapt this kinda slow and super awkward content.

  14. Lea says:

    I’ve not finished it yet, but honestly it kinda feels like it might be at least partially inspired by Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” But that’s kinda just the vibe I get!

  15. Raven West says:

    OMG! She’s from ELLENVILLE!!! That’s my hometown!

  16. M. Waldo says:

    After so much hype about this program and comparing it to Big Little Lies which was just amazing I am so disappointed in the script and the inability to keep the viewer’s attention and interest. I just wanted to change the channel on the second episode. Jessica Biel definatly looks like a psycho, she looks like Andrea Yates who killed her kids but looking like one and play ing one are two different things. Biel is boring and not a good actress. Let’s face it this drama is a disaster and is no way close to Big Little Lies, that show was so well done right down to the music, the script and the actresses. The Sinner does not hold a candle to Big Little Lies. Jessica Bell need s to go back to acting school.

  17. Thank you for this awesome review.