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At the premiere for her drama “The Sinner,” Jessica Biel says she relates to her character as a mother, and admits she shares the same parenting doubts from time to time. (Aug. 1)
AP

The Sinner really wants to make you curious. 

USA’s new Jessica Biel vehicle (Wednesday, 10 ET/PT, ** out of four) unspools a murder mystery in which  everyone knows who did it. Biel plays Cora Tannetti, a seemingly average suburban woman with a boring husband (Christopher Abbott) and a young son. One day, on the beach of a nearby lake, she stabs a man to death, in broad daylight, in front of her family and friends. 

The series, based on the novel by Petra Hammesfahr and created by Derek Simonds, isn’t whodunit, but a why-she-did-it, as investigated by Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), a wizened but troubled detective who develops an obsession with Cora’s case. 

If nothing else, The Sinner achieves its goal of piquing your curiosity. As each new piece of information about Cora and her victim is revealed, the mystery deepens. But it’s impossible to trust the narrative, as explanations for Cora’s violence and episodes from her past turn out to be lies or misdirections. Flashbacks reveal Cora had an abusive childhood, and the image of wallpaper and a woman beckoning her have an uncertain significance.

It’s all enough to keep viewers guessing over eight episodes. Yet there’s an exploitative quality to the series that’s hard to shake. Every crime drama uses violence  as entertainment, from the routine sexual assaults on Law and Order: SVU  to the weird villain on True Detective.

But there’s something about the way the mystery unfolds on Sinner that feels particularly seedy. Instead of trying to unmask the culprit, it slowly peels back the layers to reveal just how deeply Cora has been hurt. 

It’s a troubling way to build a successful series, and, at least in the first three episodes made available for review, it’s discomfiting. Cora’s attack, early in the pilot, is portrayed with graphic violence, while the frequent flashbacks to her abusive upbringing are unsettling. Early on, the depiction of  its themes of repressed female sexuality and violence feels lazy.

Biel, who returns to TV more than 10 years after her star-making turn on 7th Heaven, makes …