Michael J. Fox. Neil Patrick Harris. Kristen Bell. Michelle Williams.
They’re the epitome of teen TV stars who’ve made the successful transition to adult roles.
Jessica Biel, who played eldest daughter Mary Camden for seven seasons on 7th Heaven, has forged a productive movie career, but—I’m not going to lie—I still see the troubled bad girl (well, as bad as one was allowed to get on 7th Heaven) every time I see her. Some roles just follow you.
Can The Sinner, her first regular TV role since the earnest WB soap opera, be Biel’s Breaking Bad moment? The moment when she sheds all preconceived notions about her acting chops (because let’s be honest, 7th Heaven was a paragon of bad, stilted performances) and we begin to see her in a whole new light? As an actress to be reckoned with?
I say yes. Biel, who is also an executive producer on the series, leaves it all on the screen as young mother Cora Tannetti. When we first meet Cora, she is clearly beleaguered—ensconced in the family business and dealing with oppressive in-laws who want to consume her time and tell her how to raise her son, Laine (Grayson Eddey). She’s got a loving husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), who slowly comes to realize that perhaps he never knew his wife at all.
On family trip to the beach, Cora commits a violent act. Covered in a stranger’s blood, her eyes vacant and dead, she seems resigned to accept her fate. But if she did that, there wouldn’t be a TV series, would there?
Enter Bill Pullman as grizzled, world-weary Detective Harry Ambrose. It’s an open and shut case. Everyone at the beach saw Cora commit the crime. But Harry believes something else is going on, that there’s a reason Cora did what she did, and he’s determined to find out what it is. “We’ve got everything except for the why,” he tells his partner. The eight-episode series is, in essence, a psychological thriller—the audience tries, along with Harry, to understand Cora’s motives.
After you accept the fact that the police department would have time to investigate what amounts to an already-solved case—it’s a small town with not many murders, so let’s go with it—you also have to get on board with Pullman’s character. You can go ahead and add Harry to the list of maladjusted detectives. He’s got issues—including a troubled marriage and a sadomasochistic extra-marital affair—but his whole plot line feels extraneous, a way to fill time as we untangle Cora’s troubled past to understand why she did what she did.
From the “mothers are always to blame” department comes Cora’s childhood. Raised by a devoutly religious mother, Cora tied her bad behavior (her sins) to bad things happening to her sister, Phoebe (Rileigh McDonald). “One bite of this chocolate and it could take Phoebe’s life,” Cora’s mom tells her in one of the show’s many flashbacks. (Where is Cora’s mom when I need to diet?) Phoebe’s illness seems to be the kind that only happens on TV: In the three episodes available for review, it’s never named, but it involves painful sores, a weak constitution and constant trips to the hospital.
There’s a lot of busyness to The Sinner. It’s a show fond of imagery (a particular paisley pattern becomes important), muted tones and long pauses. But even with its obvious flaws, I was still drawn into the story as Cora’s past slowly starts to unravel. Biel has left all vanity behind—she wears no visible make-up, no fancy clothes; her hair looks haphazard—to play a woman clearly struggling to survive on a daily basis. Her grief and pain are palpable. Even behind her seemingly vacant eyes, we know there’s something there.
In the third episode, one character says she believes this is just a story of “the revenge of the millennial housewife.” But The Sinner, based on a novel of the same name by Petra Hammesfahr, is telling a much bigger story than that. One about how your memory can try to shield you, but even if you ignore your past you cannot escape it.
And for Biel it may present her chance to escape her teen star past and fully embrace her adult career.
The Sinner premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on USA.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .