The Sinner: Season 1
Traditionally, a crime drama establishes the critical balance between what fact are known within the context of the story and those that are to be uncovered during the inevitable investigation. Traditionally, the details of the crime are presented with the identity of the perpetrator to be diligently proven. There have been some notable exceptions, the television series. ‘Columbo’ comes to mind. Arguably the most startling exception can be found in the recent limited series, ‘The Sinner.’ It has become standard for the entertainment of superior craftsmanship to originate with cable networks, most frequently the upper tier premium channels such as HBO or Showtime. What is special about this example is the production company was the USA network, a member of a humble basic cable. The myriad of venues between cable, broadcast and streaming services has created an exceptionally fertile environment resulting in a level of maturity, intensity, and quality that has not been seen for many years permeating every niche of the media. Very little about ‘The Sinner’ is conventional, it blazes its path through every aspect of the production from the broad underlying stroke to the minute nuances that set this series apart from other offerings in the crime/mystery genre.
The source material the translation to as from the novel of the same name written by a bestselling and critically acclaimed German author, Petra Hammesfahr. This was her freshman opus launching an illustrious career. The migration to television was accomplished by Derek Simonds, who has captured the full intensity of the novel. A significant reason is the selection of a television format that is becoming increasingly popular, the limited series. The typical television series traditionally was formatted either as episodic, each episode presenting a mostly self-contained story, or serialized. In that mode of storytelling, each episode builds the story slowly over the entire season and often with arcs potentially extending for many years. The limited series broadens the scope of a miniseries from the usual three or four to a full season ranging from eight to thirteen episodes. This story spans eight incredibly taut and compelling chapters. This affords the screenwriter a boarder canvass, sufficient time to completely develop the characters and fully elaborate on the situations. With a story of this nature, it is imperative to present the narrative in such a precise fashion.
There is absolutely no ambiguity concerning the crime that initiates the dramatic conflict driving the story. Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel). Brutally murdered a man in front of many witnesses. Cora was a wife and new mother. During a peaceful break from the demands of a toddler, Laine, Cora and her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), were enjoying a sunny morning at the lake. Cora becomes fixated by a couple making out, gets up and in an almost automatic fashion stabs the man, Frankie Belmont, (Eric Todd) seven times. In many movies or television series, there is usually a scene that epitomizes the relationship between audience and characters. A pivotal moment when the audience either becomes mesmerized by the story or loses interest. This show has several such junctures, but the first of them seals the deal with the viewers. As you watch that violent moment closely examine the details\of the performance given by Ms. Biel. She instills such nuances into her treatment of the character that in your mind’s perspective Ms. Biel ceases to exist as Cora adsorbs the intense focus of the spotlight. Most people first became aware of Ms. Biel in her role on the family-friendly television series, ‘Seventh Heaven. After paying her dues in the usual string of romantic comedies and various sundry projects. She is an excellent example of an actress who survived the transition to adult roles through honing her considerable artistry. Ms. Biel has also been expanding her involvement in the process behind the camera as the executive producer. There are many exemplary performances in this series, but this is substantially a one-woman show.
With such overwhelming evidence against her, Cora pleads guilty to second-degree murder to avoid a trial. The complete absence of any defense or avoidance of penalties results in a mental competency hearing. The only person on her side is Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), a detective assigned to the case. Unlike his partner, Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood), Harry is convinced there is more buried deep in the troubled mind of this woman. Subduing any sense of impartiality Harry explores Cora’s past. Despite being on basic cable, this story is infused with a significant amount of mature content that would never be permitted on television. Aside from some of the graphic details of the emotional and psychological abuse, Cora endured from her sadistic father, details of Harry’s personality are explored. One aspect of his personality not directly involved with the central plot points is his sexual predilection of needing to be dominated and humiliated. His marriage with his wife, Fay (Kathryn Erbe), is on the precipice of collapse but his extracurricular activities are only part of the cause. Harry hires a waitress to serve as a blue-collar dominatrix. That relationship also is problematic. He has the previous history of the woman at a time when the sadomasochistic behavior was not a financial transaction.
The dominant themes of the narrative revolve around Cora’s childhood and her relationship with her younger sister, Phoebe (Nadia Alexander). Cora rose above being blamed for Phoebe by forming a tight sibling bond. As the became teenagers, Cora rebelled against the hyper-religious inclinations of her father by becoming sexually active. One of the first boys she became involved with was her victim, Frankie. When Cora returned home, Phoebe was desperate for details. Her only chance to experience any aspect of life beyond her bedroom was vicariously through her sister. This obsession was so strong that Phoebe insisted Cora demonstrate kissing and what intimate touching is like. Taken out of context it would appear as incest, but it was not a mutually sexual act. It was Cora feeling pity for her sister who was doomed to die young. The presentation of the scene was poignant, eschewing the slightest hint of erotic overtones.
American audiences have been preconditioned to expect high octane; testosterone infused action frequently with barely sufficient plot to provide a gossamer scaffold to support the need for the platoon of stunt professionals on the payroll. ‘The Sinner’ is paced substantially slower than many shows on the schedule. ‘The Sinner’ is beyond mere casual entertainment ascending to the heights of cinematic artistic expression. The rich tapestry of character development nurtured by finely detailed situations combined to create a narrative that is mesmerizing. Bill Pullman is known as one of the actors defining his generation. After experiencing this limited series, you will never underestimate the formidable abilities of Ms. Biel. On its surface this story will grab your attention but as you are inexorably drawn into the deeper levels of meaning and exposition. The beauty of this format, the limited series, afford the showrunner more time than a film and considerably more than the typical four to six-hour miniseries with over five and a half hours running time. This is an ideal format to present such a wonderfully complex story.