I believe all the characters on the show, in both seasons, everything the characters do, we’re all capable of. The more we can approach each other with that kind of understanding and empathy, the better the world will be.
The Sinner, now in its second season on the USA Network, is a character-driven mystery with a unique twist: Rather than a traditional whodunit, the show is instead a whydunit. In the show’s pilot—within the first few minutes—we witness the young wife and mother Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel), living in a small town in upstate New York, suddenly stab a complete stranger to death on the beach during an outing with her family. She swiftly pleads guilty to the crime and accepts her punishment. But something about the situation intrigues police detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), who digs deeper into Cora’s backstory, tracks her history, her religious upbringing, her close relationship with her severely ill sister, and the tragic circumstances that led to her unfortunate encounter at the beach.
Season one resolves Cora’s story, while season two follows Ambrose, as he travels to his hometown to assist the daughter of an old friend with a police investigation that has echoes of the Tannetti one—not to mention parallels with Ambrose’s own haunted past. The deeper he gets into the mystery of 13-year-old Julian (Elisha Henig)—accused of murdering a couple who appear to be the boy’s parents, while stopped at a roadside motel en route to Niagara Falls—the further Ambrose ends up delving into the wounds left from his own childhood trauma.
The show was developed by Derek Simonds (When We Rise, The Astronaut Wives Club) and adapted from a bestselling German novel by prolific author Petra Hammesfahr, whose work has been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith. His interest lies in the character study aspects of the story, rather than the plot-driven, procedural elements we’ve come to associate with mysteries, especially those on series television. Season two moves beyond the book to an invented story driven by Simonds’ own interests.
The first season streams on Netflix, while the second season airs Wednesdays on USA. Simonds talked with the Writers Guild of America West website about going off book with the second season, the appeal of writing a whydunit versus a whodunit, and what he finds intriguing about the concept of sin—and how people wield it against one another.
The first season obviously tells a complete story with a resolution. At what point did you know you’d be getting a second season? And what drove the decision to use Harry Ambrose as the connection between the two stories?
We always conceived of the seasons being standalone seasons. But from the start—I think in today’s age of pitching and selling shows, you’re always asked the question, Okay, this is a limited thing. If, in success, we want more, what would it be? There was always an awareness on all of the producers’ parts, that if we were successful and there was an interest in renewal, we would have a plan for that. And so I always conceived of the Ambrose character, I always conceived of him potentially going on to other cases. And building a show also, where psychologically, each case he encounters, reverberates or resonates with him. So that became the model for a potential ongoing series. We had also considered going full anthology where another season of The Sinner would not even include Harry Ambrose. It would just be a totally new story with new characters, like American Horror Story or True Detective.
In the end, though, I designed the first season to end as a handoff to the Ambrose character. Cora finishes her process of excavating her past and her traumas, in the course of season one. Harry Ambrose is just cracking the door open to his own experiences. The experience with Cora sets him on this path of inner work and explorations.
How did the show come about? Did you find the book? Or did someone bring it to you?
It was a book that Dawn Olmsted, one of the co-presidents of UCP [United Cable Prods.], the studio for the show, had found. When she got to UCP, we had worked on a project previously together, so she brought me in and I really responded to the book and pitched a take on it. At that point, Jessica Biel had a development deal at UCP, and when she read the book she was really interested in it. So it was an open writing assignment essentially that I pitched on. Then I met with Jessica and she and Dawn and others decided to go with me as the writer.
Did it get shopped around or was USA the first place you went to? When you think of USA, this doesn’t necessarily seem like one of their shows.
We shopped it around. USA pursued it. I think USA, with Mr. Robot and some of their other more recent series, is definitely looking and has already changed the blue sky approach that was the years ago USA. They’re more and more interested in competing in the darker, premium cable sphere of content. This kind of matched the direction they wanted to go in. They’ve been, from the start, incredibly supportive of the tone and the riskiness and rawness of some of the subject matter. It’s been really ideal, creatively, that way. We haven’t found ourselves in a constant battle over what the show should be. We’re very aligned on it.
How did you end up with an eight episode season? It felt pretty short, overall, compared with other series.
That was from the start. They were very interested in the run of the show playing out before all the fall premieres of a lot of broadcast networks. They were interested in the summertime release date. They really backdated it from the fourth week in September, when tons of premieres start. With USA being a broadcast network, there is still a heavy dependence on live-plus-three viewers, plus competing with market share, and ratings, and all of that. So it’s very different from the Netflix/Amazon model. The time of year that we premiered was crucial and was part of our success. The eight-episode model just kind of fit that schedule.
Certainly sometimes it’s tough for us, as storytellers, because telling an anthology show like this where you have to wrap up your story and pay off a lot of characters and character arcs and do it in 42-minute episodes, and only eight of them, is a challenge. But I find it also encourages us to make big story decisions and move forward in the story. There’s no episode of The Sinner that you could excise from the season and the season would still make sense. There’s no filler episodes. Every episode has a key plot moment and I think audiences respond to that, in the sense that the writing has a very firm sense of direction, story-wise, because we know where we’re aiming. The whole way through, we’re writing toward our ending, which is a little bit different than most of the TV out there, in terms of serialized stories that go over several seasons.
Are you totally beyond the book now in the second season?
Absolutely. In season one, we departed in a lot of ways from the book and reorganized a lot of the story elements, used some, but not others. The Harry Ambrose character from the book by Petra Hammesfarh was much less developed, a bit more of a cypher. Same age range as our character, but didn’t have a lot going on in his personal life and the relationship between him and Cora was also less developed and less the focus of the book. The book really relied on sort of complicated, first person remembrances of Cora and her madness and her sanity and not being sure which was which. So in season one, I really developed the central relationship between Cora and Ambrose. Part of my pitch was that I wanted to make that the spine of the story more than anything. That required us to really develop that character, the Ambrose character. His marriage, his personal life, the sexual life, his own traumas and the excavation of that stuff, that was all stuff that I created in season one.
And in season two, there’s nothing left of the book. Season one was entirely focused on Cora. Season two is an entirely new story, all of the characters we introduce are new and all the aspects of Ambrose that we explore are also invented by the writers.
Did that impact your writing process then, going from the book as a starting point to a completely invented story? Or did you invent enough in the first season that it was similar?
No. I mean, I have to say, it was a lot scarier for me. In season one, I had a book that offered a basic blueprint and there was a concept and a hook and an ending that we knew worked on a basic level. So there were these pillars of plot that I was building around. As any writer will know, there’s a great relief in knowing you have some basic structure that works. The challenge was making the story from the book work in a linear, visual fashion, when so much of it was written in the first person. The book is much more elliptical and kind of messy, in terms of a narrative that maintains suspense and development. So we had some sifting through and some reorganization to do, figuring out what we wanted to use and not use.
But in season two, we were lucky to have the success of season one, and USA really wanted the same airdate this year. It was incredibly challenging, I have to say, because we were essentially reinventing the show, completely, from the ground up. A new concept, a new crime being investigated, a new world that Harry Ambrose is entering, all new characters, but we had to do it in the amount of time as a compressed season of TV on a serialized show. So I had about three weeks with the writers to come up with the entire new story and do the pitch, for the network.
Then, from that point on, three more weeks to write the pilot and start delivering episodes. It was really, really tough. We were in situations where we were in pre-production, trying to decide which sets to build on our stages, and we hadn’t broken past episode four. We didn’t even know which sets were repeating more than others at that point. We had to cast actors when the pilot script was just being written by me on a rush. There was a lot of stuff that was done last minute. And a lot of the story stuff that we were figuring out, we were still doing in the process of production, which was really hard for a show like this where everything that happens in the first episodes has payoffs and resolutions in the last episodes, because you’re ending everything. And the show itself is a kind of puzzle piece story, so it’s not something that you can make up as you go along. So we were really under the gun and had to kind of go on faith a lot of the time that these elements would cohere and that casting would happen when we needed it—a lot of stuff. I wouldn’t want to do it again this way. It was pretty stressful.
Did you have the same writers’ room from season one? Did it carry over so you at least had a working relationship to start with?
Actually, no. I only had one of my original staff. I had a very small staff the first season and because we weren’t officially renewed, they had to take some other jobs. I didn’t get everyone back. I had a lot of new writers, actually, on the second season. There was also tracking that with new people, but that wasn’t such a problem. The nice thing is people can watch the eight episodes of season one and sync in pretty quickly to the tone and the character of Ambrose.
You knew you were going to start with Harry, but what inspired the storyline for the new season? The crime that’s committed and the world of the commune that is introduced?
At the end of season one, there’s this idea that Ambrose is cracking the door open on his own personal history and realizing...The last minute of season one is him looking at his bruised fingernails from his sessions with the woman he sees, Sharon, and he’s looking at the fingernails, those bruises, for the first time, and there’s this idea now he’s opened the door, he’s actually going to confront these things. So, in my mind, I knew I wanted a case that would resonate with whatever past we created for Ambrose. I knew I wanted those to dovetail. Then another thing I was thinking of, the show is very informed by therapy and psychology. I do a lot of psychological work, and I’m a big Jungian. The career I would go to if I weren’t a TV writer would be being a psychotherapist. It’s funny, some people say about Ambrose he seems more like a therapist than a detective and that’s by design. I also inject a lot of things that I discover and my own inner work in therapy, just the things that I’m thinking about. One thing that kept coming up, for me, just in the present, because I look at what’s going on right now for me, and I’m like, Where does this belong in a story that I’m telling right now? And that was just the way we parent ourselves. What is the nature of our relationship to ourselves? And particularly this delicate, childlike, inner child part of ourselves? How do we talk to that part of ourselves? How do we treat it?
That’s essentially the nature of the inner dialogue we have going all the time. I realized what would be really compelling is for Ambrose to be presented with a crime that involved a child and that child would be roughly the same age as he was when he experienced some of the traumas when he was younger. I got excited about this idea of Ambrose over-identifying with a literal child out in the real world, who becomes symbolic of his inner child, his inner self, his inner wounds, and over-identifies with this kid to such an extent that he gets embroiled in this new case and gets really emotionally invested in it. That to me felt like a fresh direction after—there was a lot of pressure from the network, like, Who’s the new female lead? Who’s the new female criminal that Ambrose is going to have a relationship with in season two? Because it worked so well in season one. I had thought that over and turned it over in my head and everything just felt like a repeat of what we had done. It felt like we were just repeating a gimmick. So the idea of the child killer came out of that. That’s a very long-winded answer.
The other aspect, in terms of the commune, I’m really interested in communes, and progressive communities, and alternative forms of community. It’s another thing I think about a lot. I’ve always wanted to tell a story about that. It felt interesting that Ambrose encounters a child that’s from this very, very unique background, who’s unlike other children, and who has this special quality, in fact, maybe a soulful, spiritual quality that Ambrose himself lacks. So that there’s something in this kid that in some ways Ambrose sees an answer. It was another way of creating a story element, this community and Vera [the de facto leader of the commune who claims to be Julian’s real mother], played by Carrie Coon, who has this very developed spiritual, psychological practice that’s very progressive, that these kind of characters would bump up against Ambrose, who’s essentially a very closed-off, emotionally compartmentalized character. And that this community, and Vera, and Julian, would force him to crack the door open even further on himself. This is the idea of every case forcing Ambrose on his own inner journey.
Speaking of the child criminal, that’s another aspect of season one that got carried over, the whydunit versus the whodunit. To present the crime fully to the audience from the start and go back and fill in the details, that seems like a challenge you set for yourself.
One of the things that helped us stand apart—the crime genre is hugely popular and there’s a lot of shows out there that operate in this genre—so it’s hard to do something fresh and stand out. We felt that the approach where the motive is the mystery was something that felt special about the show and we wanted to preserve that. That was definitely a mandate for myself and the network was really excited about that, about continuing that approach. What that helps to do is, when the motive is the mystery, it keeps the focus on character rather than just a catch-the-serial-killer plot which may be a little more typical. The mystery ends up being about the layers of character and motivation and character history and what led this character to act in this way, what are the circumstances that brought the character to this point. In season two, Julian’s crime and his motivation are actually explained much more quickly than in season one, but we realize there are a lot of circumstances around him: He’s a minor, he’s only 13 years old, there’s a lot of forces around him that brought him to this point, and it’s that mystery around him that is the thrust of the season, understanding how he got there.
Also, since the first season was a success, did it make sense to duplicate that approach?
The success confirmed our interest in the whydunit. The whydunit was always something—from the moment of pitching the show, this was our particular angle. We always wanted every season to be a whydunit. I would worry if we just had a straight-ahead murder mystery where we were trying to catch the killer, the show would just start feeling like a lot of other shows. And they do that very well. This is sort of a little niche for us to operate in, that becomes more character-based and it just encourages the kind of storytelling that for me—I don’t normally watch procedural shows. The reason I felt like I could sort of do something with this was that we had the frame of a mystery and a procedural show, but most of the content is very character-driven and is about character revelations and that is something that I just feel is more in my wheelhouse than the procedural plot writing. But it was always part of the concept from the start.
The title of the book you adapted is The Sinner. But going back to what you said about exploring things you think about in your life, what interests you about the concept of sin?
When the word sin is used to describe any aspect of human behavior, there’s a condemnation of that behavior. There’s a judgment toward it, and there’s usually shame around it. What I’m really interested in with the show is to explore those murkier, rawer places of the psyche and human behavior that are the gray areas that are very human, but whether through organized religion or our cultures, our upbringings, we deem sinful, shameful, abhorrent. Wrong. Very much like the community Vera leads in season two, which is all about integrating the virtuous shadow parts, the unlived parts of the human psyche, and integrating them more. That’s the basis of the psychological work they do at the commune and I feel like that’s kind of a statement for my aim with the show, in general.
Let’s look at these behaviors that would be easy to point a finger at and say, “That’s really screwed up, that’s crazy, that’s dysfunctional,” and actually humanize it and investigate it, develop the characters so that we understand how those characters got to those points and approach everything with empathy, hopefully, and help broaden people’s understanding and acceptance of those parts of themselves. Because we all have them. I believe all the characters on the show, in both seasons, everything the characters do, we’re all capable of. The more we can approach each other with that kind of understanding and empathy, the better the world will be, the happier we’ll be, because we won’t be ascribing sin to parts of ourselves as we do toward others. It’s basically to say there is no sin. There’s tragedy. There’s circumstance. There’s struggle. There’s a lot of people doing the best they can. But is there actually sin? And what is that, but a moral construct, oftentimes used to make us feel bad about ourselves.
© 2018 Writers Guild of America West