Jessica Biel Is Rewriting the TV Crime Drama

It’s a man’s world, and that’s especially true when it comes to the world of TV crime dramas. These shows may come in different flavors, but they’re all essentially the same. True Detective, Mindhunter, Ozark, Fargo, Bloodline, Mr. Robot, Better Call Saul, even the beginning seasons of Breaking Bad – all follow brooding men who ultimately want to do the right thing but can’t because of an unjust universe. It’s also a predictable trend that Jessica Biel has been tirelessly fighting against. Biel’s crime drama projects don’t just add a dash of femininity to this male-dominated subgenre; they also add a heaping tablespoon of pure crazy.

In this way, Biel’s work feels braver than her counterparts’. Often in these shows there exists an invisible line. You want to see these moody antiheroes do terrible things, but they also have to feel relatable by the time the credits role. That’s never the case with a Jessica Biel show.

The first season of The Sinner opened with Biel’s Cora Tannetti covered in blood after stabbing a man to death in broad daylight. Though it was clear that Cora had no memory of committing that crime, there was always the nagging doubt that she knew exactly what she was doing. Facebook Watch’s under-watched Limetown followed a similarly disturbing leading lady in the form of radio journalist Lia Haddock. In that role, Biel turned the fearless journalist trope on her head, giving audiences a reporter who would manipulate interviews, blackmail editors, and endanger innocent people to get the story she wanted. Then there’s Candy, Hulu’s history-inspired miniseries about Betty Gore’s death at the hands of her friend, Candy Montgomery. Whenever Candy appears in the bloody aftermath of this crime, there’s an unnerving serenity around her. Her hands may occasionally shake and she may vomit, but underneath her passing moments of shock, she carries the burden of ending another human’s life surprisingly well.

USA's The Sinner
Photo: USA

This embrace of poorly behaved protagonists can also be seen in Biel’s work as an executive producer. By Cruel Summer‘s end, Season 1 became a haunting saga about how a teenage girl utilized the pain and trauma of one of her peers in order to build her own social clout. Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia) didn’t just ignore the trapped Kate’s (Olivia Holt) cries for help. She used the knowledge of Kate’s capture to become more thoroughly her. It’s a story about women bringing down other women that’s haunting in their thematic honesty.

These are the characters Jessica Biel brings to the screen: morally complex women who both start and end their journeys burdened with the perception that they’re crazy. Explanations for their often-murderous actions emerge, whether they come in the form of overreacting to an affair or memory-erasing drugs from a corrupt doctor. But even when their names are cleared and they’re proven innocent, the weight remains. Their families and friends can’t look them in the eyes; their communities shun them for deigning to cause so much trouble. It’s as if a scarlet “C” appears on their clothes, a sign to the world that appearing crazy while being a woman is a stigma that can never fade.

These stories are much more interesting than yet another conflicted man who did a bad thing. They revolve around antiheroes who are just as restless and disillusioned by life as Walter White, but the social tolls they have to pay are steeper. Also, solely from an acting point of view, these shows are just fun to watch. It’s a blast to see Biel scream in a fit of rage or cruelly eye her next move as you’re left wondering what wild thing is she going to do next. We’ve done the moody guy thing for far too long. It’s time for our crime dramas to fully embrace the manic, murderous woman, and who better than Jessica Biel to lead the charge?


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