The murder at the beginning of “The Sinner” happens so suddenly that it at first seems like a dream. That’s partly because the first few minutes of the pilot before the murder are spent watching Cora (Jessica Biel), a suicidal young mother, move in and out of a dream state fueled by memories and visions and maybe prayer, too. At first, these visions are a little too gauzy for comfort — the wisps of Cora’s consciousness have a hackneyed, Lifetime quality that has more to do with a certain kind of television camerawork than it does with how mentally ill people really experience their disease.
But once Cora, motivated by unclear forces, pounces on a fellow beachgoer with a paring knife and stabs him to death — in sight of her husband, son, and dozens of others lounging on the lakeshore — “The Sinner” snaps into focus, leaving behind most of the gauziness for a whodunit where the mystery isn’t who, or how, but why. Cora stabs to kill — getting her victim, a 20-something young man making out with his girlfriend, right in the jugular. It’s so unexpected, and there’s so much blood, that the events have a surreality to them — a confusion heightened by how out of character it is for the shy, retiring woman, who minutes earlier had tried to drown herself unobtrusively in the calm waters of Lake Minnewaska. Her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), has to tackle her and bring her to the ground, squeezing the wrist holding the knife until she lets go of it. She is covered in blood.
There is clearly more to this story, and “The Sinner” hints at a bit of it in the premiere episode. Cora has flashbacks to her childhood, including telling her father she doesn’t want her mother to come home from the hospital, and being introduced to her baby sister — a sickly, almost blue infant. But the task of unraveling it will likely take all eight episodes, and it’s not wholly clear why Cora might not just tell someone what happened to her, or why she is so distraught in the hours leading up to the stabbing. The way “The Sinner” presents it, Cora herself doesn’t know why she stabbed the man — which is both intriguing and a little frustrating, considering we just watched her do it. Her story, when she has one, is that she stabbed the man because he wouldn’t turn down his music.
So far, the performances outstrip the material; Biel is committed, Bill Pullman is comfortably playing to type, and Abbott is an injection of complicated realism in a show that could otherwise veer into sensationalism. Though Biel’s Cora is presented as the emotional heart of the show, it’s Pullman, as Detective Harry Ambrose, who ends up picking up the story while Cora awaits the justice system’s determination of her fate. Harry is in love with his dominatrix and reliably unreliable, but if the old saws of small-town mysteries are to be followed, he is a very good detective. He is the first character to suspect that Cora’s bent to murder might have mitigating factors. It’s hard to tell, in a story about an open-and-shut case, why a detective would be looking for a way to prove Cora did it, but didn’t really mean to. But “The Sinner” is a little less interested in plausibility than it is in the story potential of a madwoman with a dark past. There is merit to “The Sinner,” but it remains to be seen if the story will find a way to transcend its hokier elements to tell a larger story about mental illness or post-traumatic survival. Hopefully at some point the show will also explain who the titular sinner is supposed to be.