USA Network’s “The Sinner,” the small-screen adaptation of Petra Hammesfahr’s novel, has become the surprise hit of the summer. The drama has dominated ratings since its debut, taking the No. 1 slot in Live+7 numbers.
Even executive producer and series star Jessica Biel has been taken aback by just how strong a reception the show has seen. “Generally it never occurred to me that we’d have such great ratings,” Biel admits to Variety.
Biel thinks the show’s combination of high-caliber creative team and unique subject matter is what has led to the success. “It felt like something we’d never seen before,” Biel says. “The characters were an absolute dream for a creative and challenging experiment, and with a woman at the front of it all – and kind of an unlikable woman – it seemed like a good challenge and it seemed like something new.”
“The Sinner” was designed to be an eight-episode story that follows Biel as Cora, a wife and mother who brutally kills a man during a seemingly normal family outing. While it is clear from early in the pilot that Cora committed the heinous act, the show (like the book) sets out to explore what in her psyche caused her to snap.
Through the course of the eight episodes, explosive secrets from Cora’s past emerge – from a religious and repressive upbringing, to a sickly sister and incest, to being held captive. “We definitely wanted you to feel like you have been lied to in the first few episodes because you have been,” Biel says. “She does know a little bit more than she’s saying. Even though it may not be real, she believes it’s real, but then there’s a moment where she starts to question what she knows, and that’s the point where the unreliable narrator becomes very unreliable even to herself, and she’s now invested in finding the answer, too, because the story she thought was true is just not.”
That’s the moment Biel feels she, and much of the audience, really started to understand and feel for the character – and also understand and perhaps agree with why Detective Ambrose (Bill Pullman) was working so hard not to see this obvious murderer get prosecuted for the crime. Still, it was important to Biel and the creative team to explore themes of flawed characters all the way through the series and not end up wrapping up their stories in too neat of a bow. “If we can step forward and look at those flaws and accept the truth of what’s happened to us, that’s the only way that you can possibly heal from something like this,” Biel says of her character’s journey. “The idea is that stepping into the darkness of your own human experience and your own past, that’s your only way out.”
Given the less-than “cookie-cutter” ending, coupled with the sheer success of the show, Biel says the cabler may well want to continue to capitalize on the interest in the mystery. Though Biel only signed on for one season initially, the show could go the route of “The Killing” or “Top of the Lake” and follow Ambrose onto another case, or even take true anthology route and introduce completely new characters, given that Cora’s motive is fully understood, and her sentence delivered, by the end of the season finale.
“We’re kind of starting from scratch in terms of what a second season could look like,” says Biel. “Are we being true to the language of the show if Cora is still involved? Or is that story over, and we should introduce somebody new? We don’t really know the answer to that question yet, but I would always be open to making the show the best that it can be.”
“The Sinner’s” season finale airs on USA Sept. 20 at 10 p.m.