September 21, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “The Sinner”


USA’s THE SINNER was a genuine if moderate sleeper of this summer’s TV season, not a breakout hit but consistently rating ahead of its lead-in, the veteran Suits, and it’s not entirely clear why.  The show marked the return to TV of Jessica Biel, playing the seemingly ordinary Cora Tannetti, who committed a violent murder on a public beach for no apparent reason.  But many comparable figures have come to the small screen with limited success, and her performance was marked by a studiously intense blankness.  The only other somewhat developed character was Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), the sole police detective to believe in Cora, if “developed” means a fascination with Harry’s compulsion to practice S&M.  Despite the fact that the show’s season consisted of only 8 episodes, series creator Derek Simons (working from a novel by Petra Hammesfahr) often kept the pace slow, and there was little visually striking about it.

The appeal of The Sinner seems to have been the simple one of a mystery that needed to be solved.  USA wisely played up the fact that this was a “limited” series (although its success will very likely lead to some sort of follow-up, whether featuring the same characters or in an anthology format), and that a solution would be delivered by the end of summer.  Those answers poured in during the final 2 episodes.  In the penultimate hour, we learned that Cora’s repressed memories related back to a July 4th weekend night 5 years earlier, when she was inadvertently instrumental in the death of her sickly sister Phoebe (Nadia Alexander, in one of the show’s more notable performances), whose heart gave out while she was having sex with… Frank Belmont (Eric Todd), the man Cora would kill on the beach 5 years later.

Tonight’s finale, written by Co-Executive Producer Jesse McKeown and Co-Producer Tom Pabst, and directed by Tucker Gates, filled in the rest of the puzzle.  The real villain turned out to be Frank’s doctor father, who covered up his son’s part in Phoebe’s death by holding Cora captive for 2 months, addicting her to heroin to wipe out her memory and discredit her as a witness.  Brought back to the location where she had been held, Cora’s memories came all the way back, and her 30 year prison sentence was reduced to a likely 2 years in a psych ward.

It was satisfying, in the sense that loose ends were tied up, but The Sinner remained a minor, limited piece of drama.  It concentrated on spinning out the solution to its crime to the exclusion of just about everything else, and the story, when it was finally revealed, had no resonance beyond the borders of the questions that had been raised.  Pullman and Alexander were the only actors who were able to suggest lives for the characters outside the script, while Biel remained practically immobile throughout.

Still, a success is a success, and The Sinner managed to lure and hold viewers while many other high-profile shows this summer couldn’t.  Perhaps in its next iteration, the series’ own transgressions of writing and vision will be addressed.

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."