Entertainment

'The Sinner' showcases Jessica Biel in 'whydunit' mystery

Posted July 28

Jessica Biel joins the list of prominent actors producing and starring in their own limited series with "The Sinner," which drops the customary whodunit for a "whydunit." Although clunky in places, the first few episodes conjure enough mystery and intrigue to initially overcome those minor sins.

Biel plays Cora, the mom to a toddler whose distant stares suggest some sort of inner turmoil. Yet there's no warning for her seemingly random act of brutal violence against a stranger, prompting an inquiry into whether there was some sort of unknown motivation that triggered the crime, or if she simply snapped for no apparent reason.

"I just did it. And I don't know why," she says at first, while still covered in blood.

The task of determining what happened, and why, falls to a local detective, Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who begins slowly unraveling threads that might add up to a larger story. Additional hints come in the form of flashbacks to Cora's childhood, further clouding whether she knew the victim or if he was merely an unlucky surrogate for someone who wronged her in the past.

Based on a book by Petra Hammesfahr, not everything about "The Sinner" works, from the cryptic title to Ambrose's subplot -- the "cop plagued by personal demons" riff being one of those clich-s that adds almost nothing to the proceedings, other than dragging them out. Cora's husband (Christopher Abbott), an understandably stunned witness to the event, also remains something of an underdeveloped enigma.

Still, Biel delivers a restrained, glamor-free performance, and teasing out a case beyond the customary crime procedural works well in the limited-series format -- offering an eight-episode package that has almost a British-style feel, on the order of "Broadchurch" or "The Missing."

It's premature to conclude whether the show will rise to that level, or have enough twists to sustain itself until the end. Strictly in terms of drawing you into Cora's story, though, "The Sinner" has the makings of a winner.

"The Sinner" premieres Aug. 2 at 10 p.m. on USA.

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