A beautiful day at the beach. A seemingly happy young family. A normal wife and mother feeding her child.
And then everything goes tragically wrong.
The Sinner starts off innocently enough: Cora (Jessica Biel) appears to have a decent life with her husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott), and their young son.
But appearances are deceiving. Cora is experiencing some kind of malaise, which turns inexplicably and brutally violent during a family outing to a nearby lake. She stabs and kills a young man, a stranger, apparently for no reason. It sets off an investigation headed by Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who wants some answers.
“She doesn’t understand what came out of her or what compelled her to do this,” creator Derek Simonds says.
The eight-episode limited series, premiering Aug. 2 on USA, will unravel Cora’s psyche, her motivations, and her troubled past — as it will Ambrose’s own demons.
Here are five things to know about the new crime drama:
1. It’s not a “whodunnit,” it’s a “whydunnit.”
Viewers watch Cora stab Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd), there are a ton of witnesses on the beach, and Cora confesses everything to the police. So, The Sinner is not a traditional crime-solving drama.
“We have all the information about the crime — who, what, where, when, how,” Simonds says. “We just don’t know why. What that does is create a story where we’re delving into her character and her mind and her past and trying to understand what might have triggered her to do this thing.”
As Pullman explains, “There are a lot of people who deny doing terrible things and you have to get them to tell the truth, but this is somebody who is not really offering a lie. She’s just saying she didn’t know herself why she did it.”
2. It’s a deep dive into psychology.
Both Simonds and Pullman describe the show as a psychological thriller. “We’re less interested in the ‘catch the serial killer’ or ‘here’s the DNA evidence that changes the case,’ but rather, ‘What are the layers of Cora’s mind?’” Simonds says.
“It’s really looking at how traumatized people can become compartmentalized in some ways and the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” Pullman adds. “It takes us into darker aspects of humanity, and [we] kind of measure ourselves against it when we watch a story like this.”
3. The cop is just as messed up as the killer.
As Pullman describes him, Ambrose “isn’t necessarily a rock star of police work. His own life is unstable at this point, and he’s going through a crisis himself. Something about that condition makes him become the one person who really wants to look at this and not let Cora get convicted and sent away.”
Ambrose is separated from his wife and battling his own issues. He gets caught up in this case in a way that his own colleagues can’t understand. “In a way, he’s similar to Cora. He doesn’t exactly know why [he’s fixated on the case],” Pullman says. “He has a kind of parallel journey with her, which actually allows him to realize he’s investigating himself at the same time he investigates her.”
But the more involved he gets in the case, the higher the stakes become in his personal life. “In his attempts to stabilize his life, he is realizing he’s not able to do that as well as he thought he was,” Pullman says, “which makes him a little more desperate as the story goes on.”
4. Cora’s act of violence has ripple effects everywhere.
Cora lives in a small town, and her brutal killing of Frankie will reverberate for her husband, her child, and other family members. The press will haunt their doors, and the investigation will dredge up many painful secrets.
Simonds likens it to a tree trunk that branches out. “There’s a lot of other mysteries and questions that develop as we explore her past,” he says. “It kind of ruptures this placid suburban-like, small-town atmosphere. And then once that happens, it forces all the people around her to sort of contend with their own buried s***.”
He adds, “Mason, Cora’s husband, gets involved with the case but also gets launched on his own journey. So it forces everyone else to face what they packed away in the dark.”
5. There’s some Cora in all of us.
While Cora does a terrible thing, it doesn’t make her a terrible person. And Simonds hopes that viewers can connect to Cora on a human level.
“There is a reason why Cora did what she did, and it’s something that is very relatable,” he says. “Cora’s predicament and her experience are very relatable to people, so she’s not just some monster we look at from afar, but a human being we see ourselves in.”
The Sinner premieres Wednesday, Aug. 2, at 10 p.m. on USA.