August 2, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “The Sinner”


THE SINNER:  Wednesday 10PM on USA – Change the Channel

USA’s THE SINNER wants so, so much to be Prestige TV.  Alas, Derek Simonds’ 8-hour drama (based on a novel by Petra Hammesfahr) is more like an exhibition of the genre’s tropes.  There’s the antiheroic protagonist, in this case Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), a seemingly average suburban wife and mom with a job in the family business, who one summer day abruptly slaughters an apparent stranger on a public beach.  There’s the quirky supporting character, police Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who knows there must be more to Cora’s story, and who meanwhile shares a vice with Billions’ Chuck Rhoades.  There’s the ponderous pace, and the crushing close-ups, that inform viewers Something Important must be going on.  And there are the indications of severe traumas to be revealed, fragmentary flashbacks (so far) that let us know we’re in for memories of childhood abuse and religious oppression.

Everyone works very hard and with great seriousness, none more so than the intensively deglammed Biel, whose bid this is to be in the high-class TV league currently personified by Elisabeth Moss.  (Before her, Claire Danes.)  In the early going, though, with little to project beyond bewilderment and repressed suffering, Biel’s performance doesn’t suggest the complicated layers of emotion that those actresses can convey, and although her zombiefied demeanor makes sense, it’s not very engaging.

The Sinner is clearly holding its fireworks for episodes down the line, when we’ll find out what secrets are hidden behind Cora’s heavy-lidded gaze, and what the connections are between the murderess and her victim.  Cora’s marriage to Mason (Christopher Abbott) is already strained–he only goes to visit her in jail when he’s shamed into it–and Mason’s mother is likely a smiling monster.  But how many hours will we have to wait until Simonds begins letting the show’s secrets loose, and how much of an endurance test will the drama be until we get there?  Pilot director Antonio Campos lays on the misery, but in ways that feel generic.

The Sinner demands the kind of patience that’s increasingly difficult to surrender in a landscape filled with ambitious TV, for returns that are uncertain at best.  It’s more punishment than redemption.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."