USA Network, the broadcaster that brought us Mr Robot has another mysterious offering for us in the form of The Sinner, but the New York State-based detective show consistently breaks one of writing’s first rules.
If you’ve read couchpotato before, you’ll know I’m neither in the business of re-hashing plots or traditional reviews. Instead, I like to convey what I’ve learnt about writing and filmmaking and The Sinner once again proves that valuable lessons can be learnt from both good and bad television.
The mystery at the core of The Sinner, based on the book of the same name by Amanda Stevens, is an original and interesting premise – a seemingly normal woman, Cora Tanetti (Jessica Biel) brutally murders a man at the beach with no idea why she might have done it. Instead of a whodunnit, it’s a WhytTheFuckDidIDoThat?
With her confession, twenty eye-witnesses and we, the audience seeing the murder play out, the case is as open and shut as a crocodile sandwich… until Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) enters the fray, convinced there is more to Cora’s story.
Of course, there is much, much more… but we won’t go into that here.
What I would like to highlight is a worrying trend in this and some other shows. While Life on Mars S01E02 brilliantly demonstrated a forgetful, confused eyewitness brought in to the police station for questionning, whoever Harry Ambrose questions in The Sinner has perfect, instant total recall of all events no matter how long ago they took place.
The weekend of importance is the Fourth of July Weekend in 2012, five years ago in the story. With little time or effort, the parents of the murdered man remember that their son was away on the west coast in Los Angeles that weekend. Okay, these characters have a huge, vested interest and it’s revealed the son was indeed away in LA for several months at the time, something they would recall. Writers 1, Will 0.
We’ll give you that one, writers but don’t do it again…
Detective Harry Ambrose checks out a sleazy bar which Cora visited five years hence. After being shown Cora’s photo, not only does the waitress instantly recognize Cora and remember that she was there all those years ago, she instantly remembers it was Independence Day weekend, 2012 and the blond guy who Cora was hanging out with.
How many other customers must have passed through those saloon doors in five years? For the waitress to remember so clearly, I’ll tell you how many. Twelve thousand, eight hundred and four. Writers 1, Will 1.
Some time later, Harry visits Cora’s parents upstate, her dad revealing “She ran away five years ago… right around the Fourth of July, 2012; that weekend.” No goals here but the writers almost put through ther own net with some sub-par, on-the-nose writing.
On a trip to NYC, Cora’s aunt reveals to Harry “She disappeared in July… in 2012.” Writers 1, Will 2. Maybe the show is making up for the fact that Cora can’t remember why she murdered someone by having everyone else in the universe remember everything, ever.
I can’t remember what I did yesterday, but the manager of a rehab center Cora stayed in instantly remembers every detail about her, including the fact her head wound was stitched up when she arrived fve years ago… on July Fourth Weekend in… Writers 1, Will 3.
I half expected this old chap to reveal “She was right over there, by the dumpster on the fourth of July, 2012.” Okay, he didn’t – but the date had been spoonfed to the audience so many times that I was waiting for it!
In summary – The Sinner has taught us two things not to do in detective shows: don’t give witnesses pefect recall – it’s totally unbelievable and don’t spoonfeed information to audiences over and over again in the same way.
Part of the craft of screenwriting is to disseminate information (called exposition) to the audience via character’s mouths without us noticing. Trouble is, The Sinner (and many other shows) have me shouting “People don’t talk like that!” at the screen!
One easy way to fix these examples is to have the witnesses say “It was the fourth of July, maybe six or seven years ago?” (a memorable day of the year is, after all why the writers chose Independence Day weekend) then have the detective narrow down the year. Alternatively, have them say “It was 2013, no… 2012.” Yes, it may take up an extra sentence or a few words, but it will seem much more natural.
While Cora’s husband, Mason (Christopher Abbott) can barely act and Bill Pullman phones in his performance, Justified’s Jacob Pitts adds some gravitas while Jessica Biel just about manages to hold the atmospheric eight-episode, muliti-timeline story together.
There’s a contrived, yet ultimately meaningless B-Story involving Harry’s estranged wife, couples therapy and visits to a dominatrix,
While a damned interesting conceit, with such below-par writing, The Sinner is never going to be genre-defining TV; scenes largely play out to obvious conclusions – apart from when they contain impossible leaps of faith instead of real detective work. That said, The Sinner is passable, paint-by-numbers stuff. Speaking of which, the final score remains Writers 1, Will 3. Must try harder.
The Sinner airs its final episode on USA Network on Wednesday, 20th September. Mr Robot is back on the 11th October!