This article previously appeared on Crossfader.
In this Crossfader series, our intricate and complex rating system will tell you definitively whether new television pilots are worth your valuable time. We call it: HIT OR SH**.
The miniseries is a force of good. If you look in the mirror and dig really, really deep down, you have to admit that most shows go sour over time, even your favorites. The cracks were showing at the seams of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT by the end (and Season Four is not great!), BREAKING BAD had some rough bumps in the middle (and the first part of the fifth season, but that might just be me), and THE SOPRANOS similarly lost some steam around its latter half. Some manage to rise again to save the day at the end, others languor off into irrelevancy, but if you show me a program you claim is perfect throughout, I’ll show you a liar. That leaves us with the miniseries, the increasing prevalence of which is our most empirical evidence of the TV renaissance. On paper it’s the exact sort of thing executives would seemingly strive to avoid, broadcasting a pre-set end date where ratings and revenue will depart along with the characters, but with “auteurism” stretching ever further across the land, the star-studded and directed miniseries is back as critical king (please don’t make Season Two of BIG LITTLE LIES, pretty, pretty please).
Just give us more Legally Blondes!
Which, admittedly, makes THE SINNER a more interesting case study, as its creative forces are on the lower half of the B-list, if that. Jessica Biel is Cora Tannetti, a quiet and generally subdued housewife to her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott). However, we can clearly see that there’s some trouble in paradise, as Cora is less than pleased with the fact that they live on the same property as Mason’s mother. One day while at the beach, Cora decides to pull a Skyler White and try to sleep with the fishies forevermore. When that proves unsuccessful, she returns to shore, where she sees a young couple getting frisky. Entirely snapping, Cora stabs the man multiple times with a knife, leading to a swift arrest on behalf of Detectives Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) and Dan Leroy (Dohn Norwood). Now the judging heads of Johnny Law and the viewer ponder the questions of, “What the fuck?” alike.
I’ll give you this: Cora’s one-two punch of attempted suicide and murder is a little silly. There was really no need to show her trying to go to the Great Gig in the Sky, as we were already more than aware that she was a generally unhappy camper despite having an ostensibly loving husband and child. That being said, pilots are usually structured around the desire to present a real humdinger of an inciting incident and whisk us off to the races, and in that regard, THE SINNER is a success! It makes no sense why Cora would brutalize a man engaging in some comparatively innocent tongue wrestling, and yeah, ya got me, I’m curious to find out why! Especially as we get hints and teases of the cult-like religious sect Cora was a part of growing up, I’m sure things are set to be properly dark and oozing as time wears on.
I can’t weather the existential void of making another misuse of Mooncup joke
But things are not going to be particularly innovative, I’m afraid. THE SINNER is adapted from a German crime thriller, and what crime thrillers lack in diversity of narrative and theme, they make up for in consistency. It’s typically the same thing, but different, and it remains to be seen whether or not THE SINNER can manage to shake up its formula just enough to keep the attention of more discerning audience members. We’ve seen religious cults, we’ve seen good people driven to do bad things, we’ve seen cops with strange sexual underbellies (come to think of it, I guess this has more TRUE DETECTIVE than I originally recalled)… but why not see them again! As it stands now it’s all still interesting, even if you’re going to be a grump and insist that I add a qualifier of “superficially,” and if the show can manage to develop the just barely visible oddities and quirks of Mason (Why is he so antisocial to Cora’s friends? Why does he really choose to not immediately visit her in prison? Why does he like living with his mom?) in a satisfactory manner, we might have some steaming subplots to carry us across the finish line.
That being said, I can already tell Harry’s character is going to take up way more screen time than necessary and generally waste my time. This is where familiarity begins to curdle, as I simply don’t care that there’s death in his past and that he likes being dominated and forced to give head to prostitutes in his time off (although that’s better than him dominating and getting head, I suppose!). I can already tell that he either already sees or is going to see some diamond in the rough of Cora that will allow him to process a past trauma or sacrifice himself to save her. Yawn. He also reminds me vaguely of Steve Bannon, so take those points away from Gryffindor.
Like a hot Steve Bannon? Which is something I never thought I’d type?
But what is nice is seeing Christopher Abbott slowly but steadily become a household name! I always loved him on GIRLS, and while I think his agent is really leaning into some alternative roles considering his stint in IT COMES AT NIGHT and this, he’s proving again and again he can be a weird, ominous, psychosexual dude. The dude has recently been in critically acclaimed project after critically acclaimed project, and I hope THE SINNER is well-enough received to boost him to the rarefied air of mainstream Hollywood where he’ll appear in a middling Marvel film. As for Jessica Biel… sure! I don’t mean to be dismissive—she’s good. But so is every other big-to-biggish name actress appearing in prestige television. She can do the requisite flip-flopping between emotional crisis and subtlety to carry the show, and that’s really all we can ask for, but my underdog Naomi Watts in GYPSY is better, for my money.
Ah, that’s the other thing. Nobody’s out here really having unfettered access to USA, and they sure do make it hard to watch it otherwise. I had to clutch my pearls and shell out three American dollars on iTunes to watch the pilot. Was it worth the money? Yes! I’ll keep it real with you and admit that THE SINNER is on the cusp of a Sh** Probation, but the high quality of the acting, the pulpy but base-level effectiveness of the writing, and the rather disturbing plotline they set up with Cora and her relationship with her sister won me over by the end of the day. If you have USA, watch away, and if you don’t, I’d see it’s worth the equivalent of a beer or two to dive in.
THE SINNER airs on USA on Wednesdays