Within the first 15 minutes of The Sinner, you know who the killer is. There’s no doubt about it—you see it happen, and dozens of witnesses see it too. Although a mystery, The Sinner isn’t as interested in the whodunnit, but the whydunnit. And centering the series on that aspect helps make The Sinner a taut, suspenseful, unpredictable thriller.
Written and developed by Derek R. Simonds and based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr, the story opens with Cora (a spellbinding Jessica Biel in a powerhouse performance that’s currently up for an Emmy) going through a typical day. We get a subtle sense that she’s unhappy, troubled in some way, and our suspicions are confirmed almost immediately when she stabs a stranger on a crowded beach in broad daylight. From there, the question becomes why she did it, and detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is the man pursuing it. Flashbacks and interviews slowly piece together some of the details.
The most important part of any mystery is, obviously, the mystery. That’s why we’re here in the first place, right? It’s a simple statement, but in practice it’s much harder to pull off. The audience needs to care about the mystery, and if the audience doesn’t care, it’s like that proverbial tree in a forest: If no one wants to know the answer, does the story make an impact? Fortunately, Simonds and Hammesfahr have crafted a gripping thriller with many of the genre’s requisite twists and turns, but the answers to the central mystery are centered in Cora. Without spoiling too much (in general, viewers are too sensitive and tend to be spoiler-averse to a fault, but spoiling plot points in a mystery is simply sociopathic), Cora quickly proves herself to be more victim than sinner, and the story becomes as much a psychological character study as it does a mystery.
Originally set up at USA (the channel) as a limited series, the first season proved to be a success, and the show was quickly picked up for a second, with Pullman’s detective returning to investigate another murderer. Both seasons are worth checking out, especially for any writers interested in how to create—and sustain—compelling mysteries. This is simply one of the best shows on television right now.