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Review: Jessica Biel in ‘The Sinner,’ a Whydunit

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Abby Miller, left, and Jessica Biel in “The Sinner.”

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Brownie Harris/USA Network

“The Sinner,” a new murder mystery starting on Wednesday on USA, doesn’t waste any time showing us who the murderer is. Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), a woman who seems a little jumpy and perhaps a lot depressed, but generally peaceful, leaps to her feet on a crowded beach and stabs a man to death in front of her husband and young son. She claims not to know the victim, or what caused her to kill him.

So the question is why, not who, as a shambling detective named Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) resists the rush to judgment and delves into Cora’s past. It’s a setup that drains a lot of the usual suspense: Cora is sitting in jail, and no one else appears to be in any danger. That puts a lot of pressure on the “why.” Will the answer be worth waiting for, in this case through eight episodes of a quiet, deliberately paced basic-cable mini-series?

[ Jessica Biel and Bill Pullman on “The Sinner” ]

USA provided only the first three episodes, so we can’t be sure. But they’re sufficiently intriguing and stylish to make the wait worthwhile, as long as you accept the possibility of disappointment when all the secrets are revealed.

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“The Sinner,” created and written by Derek Simonds (“When We Rise”) and based on a best-selling German novel by Petra Hammesfahr, is set in upstate New York and may call to mind another USA series set there, the underrated and recently canceled “Eyewitness.” The shows share a languid, small-town vibe, but “Eyewitness” was more conventionally structured. A truer comparison would be to the Showtime potboiler “The Affair”: the reliance on fraught flashbacks and the feeling of being underwater, in a constant state of unease.

One of Cora’s recurring memories is of an intricately patterned wallpaper, and the connection to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a classic story of female oppression and psychosis, feels intentional. “The Sinner” is an extreme iteration of the bad-mommy and bad-wife stories that are so prevalent now, but with the promise of reversal and redemption — if Harry does his job, Cora’s violence will be explained, perhaps justified.

We’re meant to see that Harry wants to save Cora from herself because he’s an equally lost soul, flailing in his marriage and turning to a bartender for sessions in ritual humiliation. This limits Mr. Pullman’s opportunities to employ his sly, off-center humor, but he’s still an engaging audience surrogate.

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