Tuesday, August 1, 2017

TV REVIEW: USA's 'The Sinner'

USA will premiere its new limited series The Sinner on Wednesday, August 2 at 10/9c. following a new episode of Suits. The drama stars Jessica Biel, Bill Pullman, Christopher Abbott, Abby Miller and Dohn Norwood.

Read on for my thoughts on the new series after screening its first three episodes.

The Sinner is the spiritual successor to Mr. Robot that USA has been looking for in the past two years. Mr. Robot came out with a strong and distinct statement that the cable network would no longer be producing blue-skies procedurals. The channel wanted to get serious and tackle darker dramas that are prestigious and awards players as well. Mr. Robot was a perfect show to launch the rebrand because it had the quality to live up to those expectations and aspirations. And yet, one show doesn't make a network. One show couldn't possibly recreate everything about USA. The network has struggled to find a follow-up series of equal quality. There are still great things on the network. Suits is still compelling in its seventh season while Playing House is one of the best comedies on the air. But new dramatic efforts haven't done so well. Colony and Queen of the South are good but not great. Falling Water and Eyewitness were massive flops. So, the network has a lot riding on The Sinner and a number of other shows it has planned to launch in the next few months. Fortunately, The Sinner is great. Much like Mr. Robot, it has an unreliable narrator quality to it where the audience always has to be wary of the information being given. But it's not just some cheap, copycat series either. It's very distinctive and his its own worldview and themes to explore. The execution is so phenomenally well done that it's easy to get hooked and need to see more episodes to unravel all of the mysteries. It could easily be a good binge show.

Jessica Biel makes her big return to television as the star and executive producer of The Sinner. She helped developed the series alongside writer Derek Simonds and director Antonio Campos. That collaboration seems like it was very fruitful. There is a completely willingness to do whatever the story requires on Biel's part. She is incredibly strong in the moments that ask for her to be a blank canvas disassociated with the world around her. But she's also wonderfully scary in the moments of complete animosity and ferality. It's a performance that I was completely surprised by. It's so phenomenal and the direction knows exactly how to capture her face in a way that makes her seem equal parts beautiful and terrifying. It's truly remarkable. It's a creative partnership where the work is clear to see on the screen. It's work that has clearly paid off because Biel is able to pull the viewer into the mystery of what makes her character tick. Understanding her is a complex thing and every new reveal works because of what Biel brings to the table.

The basic setup for the show is that Biel's Cora Tannetti is an unassuming housewife who commits a violent crime on a public beach in front of dozens of people. It's a murder mystery show that also flips the script on its central premise. Cora is the lead character. The audience sees a lot of things from her perspective. We are right there alongside her as she gets up and attacks someone for seemingly no reason. The reason behind all of this is the central hook of the series. The police understand who committed the crime but they are all baffled by the why of it all. To them, there needs to be a motive. It helps the prosecution actually convict her of the crime. But it would also make this an easy and accessible story to understand. People don't just randomly hurt others like this for no good reason. It feels like a crime of passion but there's no relationship between attacker and victim. It's a mystery that spans across time. Every episode reveals a new depth of Cora's personality. It's not one traumatic thing that has come to define her existence. It's instead a mountain of learned behavior that started from birth. How she was raised affected her actions as a teenager, which in turn affected her actions as a young adult, which in turn affected her actions in the present. It's a snowball effect where every piece of the story is important in some way. Putting the pieces together is the big process of the show. Only once the entirety of her life is clear will the characters and viewers hopefully understand why all of this happened.

All of this makes The Sinner feel refreshing and different from the norm. It's a psychological thriller where every answer only introduces more mysteries. Cora is a type of character who has never really been seen before in the medium. The show takes the time to explore her entire life. Yes, it's purposefully withholding information from the audience. But it's also apparent to see all of the actions that came to define her long before she arrived on the beach that one fateful day. The show does a phenomenal job in making her a complex and mysterious character. She feels like a human being too. She's not just a puzzle that needs to be solved in order to feel validated. Her life has been impacted by various traumas that she is only just now coming to understand because of what she did. What happens to her next is still a very compelling story. Some just want to give her a label and lock her away without analyzing the life she had that led to this moment. That produces a fascinating conversation of empathy throughout the piece. How much do we truly know about each other? Cora's husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott from Girls) believes he knew his wife because of the intimate life they had together. But he's completely blind to the inner horrors of her world and is just as surprised as everyone else by the revelations that eventually come out.

Of course, there are some pretty conventional elements to The Sinner as well. Those are largely embodied by Bill Pullman's lead detective character, Harry Ambrose. He does a strong job in bringing this character to life too. He and Biel are able to go toe-to-toe with each other in an impressive acting showcase. But Harry feels much more of a composite of various detective characters over the years who find themselves getting obsessed with cases to the detriment of their personal lives. The show is choosing to spend a lot of time in his world. He has grand mysteries and personality ticks as well. Reactions that seem odd and out-of-place but are well-informed to his being for some reason. That makes it seem like the show has awareness that everyone in this world is a complicated person just like Cora. We are all the byproducts of the lives and choices we've made. His quirks are just a little bit more distracting and random. They provide him with a life outside of the investigation. But the show is always at its best when it's about Cora. The supporting characters are all affected by what she has done. But their lives outside of the investigation aren't as inherently compelling as when they are actually interacting with her. Plus, the show can be a little formulaic in using every episode to reveal a new layer and/or shocking secret about Cora that would seemingly explain everything only for further examination to prove that not to be true.

But still, The Sinner is a bold and imaginative show. I binged the three episodes sent out to critics in one sitting. It's that type of show that is able to pull the viewer in. Sure, it also asks the audience why they are watching this in the first place. That can be an alienating quality as well. This is a dark show about violent and seemingly random acts of violence and the devastation they create within people. It's difficult material to work with. And yet, the show is sensitive to all of the story while never shying away from the true horrors of it all. That's very impressive. The show gets off to a strong start with its premiere and keeps the quality going in the following episodes. This is also a closed-ended story. Everything will be wrapped up by the eighth and final episode. That's reassuring to some viewers who will need that closure in order to commit to it in the first place. In success, USA is hoping to turn the show into a season-long anthology similar to American Horror Story. I'm not sure how exactly that would work because this first story is so specific. But after three episodes, the creative team has earned my trust. I'm willing to go along with anything they present as long as it makes sense in the end. I have the confidence it will because it has shown a willingness to avoid the easy solution and examine the more complex one.