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The Globe and Mail

John Doyle: The Sinner is a disturbing, gripping and superb new thriller

The first thing to remember about The Sinner (Monday, Showcase, 10 p.m.) is that although it is from a USA cable channel, it is of German origin.

That is, this fabulously florid murder-mystery is based on a bestselling novel by German writer Petra Hammesfahr. It is reset in the United States with Jessica Biel playing the lead role, but there is a compressed exploration of abnormal psychology and perversion, which is German in tone. That means it is a serious-minded and a gripping tale, less about generating fear than it is about apprehension.

And there's blood. At the start, it is shockingly bloody, in a disorienting way that gives the sense of it being drawn from real experience of sudden violence, not fantasy.

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What happens is this – Cora Tannetti (Biel) an apparently meek mother and wife who works as the bookkeeper in the family business, walks away from her family on a beach outing and stabs a young man, Frankie Belmont (Eric Todd), to death with a knife. It is a savage attack, aimed at killing the victim as brutally as possible.

Why? Well, that is the meat of things in this eight-part series, which goes on a twisted excursion into Cora's mind and a part of her past that is either hidden or has been erased. There was no apparent reason to kill Frankie Belmont. She didn't know him. She admits to the murder and says little.

All we sense about Cora – and Biel is excellent as the relentlessly unknowable figure – is that she feels a bit depressed. There has been some mild bickering about her husband (Chris Abbott) being a mama's boy and she seemed bored with her work. An unfulfilled life. Maybe that's why she seemed to be vaguely contemplating drowning herself when she goes swimming at the beach. But why did she snap when she saw Frankie kissing and cuddling with his girlfriend? It is vaguely suggested that a series of triggers – a piece of music, the way the victim's hands moved – shifted her brain to murderous intent.

It is up to Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), the main cop on the case, to figure out the whydunnit. Ambrose is deeply sensitive to hidden perversions and the tricks that people use to hide their secrets. He's involved in a mundane, sort-of sado-masochist relationship with a waitress (Meredith Holzman). This mostly involves the waitress humiliating him and slapping him very hard. The sheer ordinariness of it is striking – there's nothing lurid about some perversities, and Ambrose knows it. That's why he senses something buried inside Cora, an inner life that erupted suddenly and chaotically into brutal murder.

The series is gorgeously made and well paced, as Cora's past emerges very slowly. There was a deeply religious upbringing, but the fanaticism of some brands of Catholicism does not explain everything about Cora's depression and anger. Some viewers might find the Cora figure too blank in the first episode, but there is much more to come and, besides, Cora is not a nullity. She is a representative figure in many ways. She is a woman taken for granted. She is a woman who has eased into a pleasant but unchallenging life. She has regrets that nobody wants to hear about. She's treated as a nobody, but that cannot mean she is bland and unreal. The viewer is obliged to ask why Cora seems content to want to disappear into jail for life and be forgotten. Is it because the life offered to her was loving and safe but is so empty that she wants total emptiness?

On the one hand, the engine of the series is the uncovering of the motive for Cora killing Frankie Belmont. That uncovering unfolds at deliberate but very effective pace. At the end of the first episode and not far into the second, some threads emerge that seem to connect Cora and Frankie. And there are flashbacks to Cora's childhood that aren't quite chilling but have the flavour of sourness. Was Cora abused or is she untamed? The questions keep mounting.

As good as Biel is, inhabiting this apparently ordinary woman with a terrible secret, Bill Pullman is often at the centre of the drama, and superbly so. His character is a strange figure with a number of small obsessions that add up to a benign quality. In the second episode, Ambrose's boss says to him, "It all makes sense now" after Ambrose has delivered some unknown information about Cora. Ambrose says nothing, shrugs and looks away, knowing that nothing truly makes sense, yet.

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And that's where the matter of apprehension enters the drama. While The Sinner could have been about a mystery being solved, methodically, with well-placed twists adding to the drama about well-drawn characters, it isn't just that. It's about the innermost urging of the soul and what keeps this wonderful, nuanced drama going is the sense of apprehension about what will be found there. Highly recommended.

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