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In recent years, USA has emerged as one of the best places to find compelling original dramas on cable television. The network has had some ambitious new projects in the works for a while, one of which has been the murder mystery series called The Sinner. Now, a good murder mystery is hard to pull off on television. Fortunately, The Sinner has all the makings of a series that will leave viewers puzzling, speculating, and wanting more after every episode.
The mystery of The Sinner revolves around Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), who at first seems remarkably unremarkable. She works with her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) at his family company, wants a little breathing room from her in-laws, loves her toddler son, and wants to get to the beach early to stake out a good spot. Aside from a need to self-medicate before getting intimate with her husband, Cora seems perfectly normal... until everything goes wrong. The family trip to the beach and dip in a lake turns disastrous when Cora snaps and murders a man she doesn't even seem to know by stabbing him to death.
If it seems like I've just spoiled you on the entire plot of the series, don't worry. The Sinner isn't a whoddunit mystery. We know exactly who killed Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd) and how she killed Frankie Belmont and where she killed Frankie Belmont. What we don't know is why Cora suddenly seized the knife she was using to cut fruit for her son and went to town on a guy at the beach. That's where Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) comes in. Convinced that there's more to the story than that Cora simply snapped out of nowhere, he begins to dig into her past, and he works to uncover secrets about Cora's family that might help make sense of the vicious crime of which Cora is quite undeniably guilty.
Created by TV writer Derek Simonds, The Sinner is based on the novel of the same name by a, and it challenges viewers to consider how no mystery or murder can ever be truly solved until motive is determined. The question of The Sinner isn't who committed the crime. There's no frame job or evil twin or one-armed man who really did the deed. Cora Tannetti took a knife and stabbed a man on the beach seven times, while his friends screamed and her husband tried to stop her. The leading lady committed the crime and seems pretty determined to do the time. We just don't know why, and it's that why that keeps the action moving.
The story is certainly engaging and fascinatingly dark, but the actors are really responsible for making The Sinner so incredibly compelling. Jessica Biel holds nothing back in her performance as Cora, who switches between cooperative, cathartic, and violent from scene to scene. It's a deeply unglamorous role that doesn't involve tons of makeup or impeccably styled hair or high fashion. Biel's performance is so hauntingly raw that it's difficult to say when Cora is telling the truth, when she's lying, and when she's too traumatized to keep on top of things. I was never entirely sure if I wanted to hug Cora or handcuff her for safety's sake, and that really works for a series like this.
Christopher Abbott is a treat as Mason Tanetti. Every time it seems like The Sinner might go an expected route with the character, he does something entirely different, and Abbott delivers on every single scene. Mason comes across as a man who dearly loved his normal life with his normal wife and doesn't quite know how to deal with the new status quo after she murdered a man in broad daylight on a crowded beach. He's a good man in a bad situation, and it should be interesting to see if he can survive the darkness that has suddenly overshadowed his family.
Bill Pullman does well enough as the grizzled detective who thinks there's more to the case. It's a relatively thankless role, as there are as many veteran cops who take cases personally as there are cop shows on television, but he brings a certain magnetism to the small screen that works. There's a subplot about his character's sexuality that may take many viewers by surprise, and it's definitely not a twist that happens on every cop show on television.
At the end of the day, The Sinner is a show that will keep viewers engaged from week to week. The story isn't the kind of murder mystery whoddunit that has been done a thousand times before. As long as the show sticks the landing and resolves the mystery in a way that pays off on all the spine-tingling suspense, The Sinner will go down as one of the most engaging summer series on television.
The Sinner is a close-ended series, which means that viewers don't have to worry about a cliffhanger that will leave them waiting and wondering for months. This murder mystery will be resolved by the end of eight episodes. You can catch the series premiere on Wednesday, August 2 at 10 p.m. ET on USA. For your other viewing options in the coming weeks, take a look at our fall TV premiere schedule.