'Big Sky': How ABC Got David E. Kelley to Make a Cable Show for Broadcast

Big Sky
ABC

David E. Kelley was done with broadcast television.

The creator of The Practice, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal had all but sworn off returning to the medium that made him one of the most celebrated writer-producers in the TV industry when ABC entertainment president Karey Burke got ahold of the script for Big Sky.

The Montana-set thriller, based on the novels by C.J. Box, had been passed over at MGM-owned premium cable network Epix (which opted to make Belgravia instead, per sources) and Burke wanted to bring cable- and streaming-minded showrunners to her broadcast network as part of a larger push to elevate ABC's brand.

Kelley, meanwhile, had spent the years since CBS canceled his Robin Williams-Sarah Michelle Gellar comedy The Crazy Ones pushing into cable and streaming with shows including Amazon's Goliath (which he's no longer involved with), Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes and HBO's award-winning Big Little Lies.

While he's still "nervous" about being on a broadcast network ("I hate the commercial part of it," he says) it was his history with Disney chairman of entertainment Dana Walden and with Burke — who was a creative exec with him on L.A. Law — that helped bring the famed showrunner back to ABC. "The idea of working with them again was something that spoke to me," Kelley tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Big Sky was picked up straight to series in January and marked Kelley's return to broadcast — and the network that was home to Emmy-winning drama The Practice and Boston Legal.  Launching Tuesday at 10 p.m., Big Sky is a thriller about a private detective (Kylie Bunbury) who teams with an ex-cop to (Katheryn Winnick) to find two sisters who go missing in Montana and also represents a prime example of Burke's efforts to bring female viewers back to ABC.

Below, Kelley and Burke — who were interviewed separately — talk with THR about why Big Sky is a risk for ABC, how the executive is courting top showrunners to come to broadcast and why viewers may need to be patient to see those empowered female characters.

Big Sky is the only new drama ABC is launching this "fall" season. What makes this show right for ABC?

Burke: David E. Kelley knows how to create a hit broadcast show and in particular, a hit ABC show. I chased the script, which had all the high marks of what David does well: weave a really innovative, compelling tale that's told through the prism of really strong women. This particular story takes a minute to unfold, which is what is so beguiling. It’s not completely serialized [but] there are satisfying stories in every episode. He is telling the story in these mini arcs, in which you ultimately see our female leads triumph over their oppressors.

David, you said in 2016 that you were done with broadcast television. What changed? 

Kelley: I suggested that I was not inclined to go back to broadcast and I’m still not inclined to go back to broadcast. I'm still nervous about broadcast. I hate the commercial part of it, the eight-minute acts; it’s just not fun. This is just really project-driven. Karey has been unflinching in the support of the tone of the series, which is more cable-esque or streaming-esque than broadcast.

Burke: We vowed to protect his vision and wouldn’t rub the edges off, which is I think what he was feeling about broadcast television when he left. He is telling a compelling broadcast story that at the same time has a lot of the appeal of an elevated streaming or cable series in terms of its sophisticated storytelling and adult nature.

You've got HBO's The Undoing, Netflix's Anatomy of a Scandal, Disney+'s Big Shots and now Big Sky. With your recent history of sales to streaming, where did you envision Big Sky landing?

Kelley: I saw it as a limited series of two to three seasons, each maybe six to eight episodes and focusing on one of the Cassie Dewell books. We initially set this up at Epix to be just that and then it didn’t go. Karey came in for a meeting and thought it would be perfect for ABC. I said no because this is more of a cable show. She was very persuasive in that they wanted to be more bold in their storytelling and their content.

Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail recently sold two dramas to ABC, his first shows for a broadcast network. In a larger sense, how are you courting cable- and streaming-focused showrunners to return to broadcast?

Burke: One of the things that is so powerful about broadcast is its reach. That is appealing to storytellers who have something to say and want to say it to as broad an audience as possible. These are stories that can go on for years. We have Sam; Lee Daniels is back here with a show; and we have one from [Friends co-creator] Marta Kauffman.

What was it about Karey's pitch for the show that got you back on broadcast?

Kelley: She responded to the idea that this wasn’t a serial killer show where there were women in distress and strong men coming to the rescue. This is a show where the women were more ferocious than the men. That’s the part of the books that we’ve endeavored to unearth in the series: we are out in the wild west, a very male, testosterone-driven world and Cassie and Jenny Hoyt are the new sheriffs in this wild west. C.J. is a real muscular writer and the idea of Cassie and Jenny not just living but thriving in this brutality and being triumphant in it is what I connected with and it’s what Karey responded to as well.

You've said your larger goal is to bring women back to ABC and Big Sky is the first show you've developed from script to series for the network. How is Big Sky emblematic of that push?

Burke: It’s a story that is realistic about the fact that violence against women exists in our country. It’s owning it and it’s telling a story of women that are victims of it that ultimately triumph over it. It is not a story that neatly wraps up in the first episode. What intrigues me most about it is the ultimate power that it shows from women who start as victims and ultimately triumph. Our heroines — our detectives — start in a hard place. We meet them at a low point in their relationship when they are at odds over a man and ultimately, they cross that bridge and come together to solve the mystery in a really compelling way.

How will Big Sky succeed where Stumptown and Emergence didn't?

Burke: Emergence was too serialized for the current broadcast audience. While Big Sky is serialized, there is still a satisfying story in every episode, or a gigantic hook that propels you into the next. It is more strategically designed for a contemporary broadcast audience. Stumptown is heartbreakingly a victim of our covid problems. I fault our inability to get it back up and running in a way that it could have been back on the air this fall, which it just couldn’t. We changed showrunners and the scripts were excellent, but they were not able to deliver the show in a consecutive, airable fashion until late spring/early summer. It's too hard to get that audience back when a first-year show that's finding itself would have been off the air for over a year.

Big Sky features three women victimized — twice — in the pilot alone, with the opening scene featuring a transgender character seemingly killed off. Plus two women, as you noted, fighting over a man. How many of these tropes are David E. Kelley trying to subvert expectations? Because the pilot doesn't give the impression that it's a show about empowered women.

Kelley: The book starts off that way, too. That is one of the twists. You may start out thinking this is a series where women get victimized but hold on, not so fast. Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) and Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel) are very formidable, even as prisoners. And Cassie and Jenny are strong characters as well. The totality of those characters, we should be won over and impressed by their strength.

Burke: Meredith Grey [in the Grey's pilot] slept with a guy and couldn’t remember his name and [played into] the television trope of a woman who’s got her act together at work but can’t get her love life together. That was Shonda Rhimes’ intent from the beginning but that was not fully evident in the first episode. David is asking the same thing. None of the Big Sky characters are coming from a position of strength. They’re all victimized in their own way as we meet them and it’s the story of them triumphing over that.

Speaking as a trans parent, I would never portray or support the portrayal of a trans character purely as victim. This character has incredible strength and outsmarts and rises up over expectations and tropes and her captors. That’s an important story to tell. To deny that there’s trafficking of women and trans characters is not doing the victims of that any favors. I think our audience is smart enough to know that it’s OK to start characters in an imperfect place and to watch them struggle with their own demons and then the demons that are trying to control them and root for them to triumph.

Do you worry then that with so many shows on various platforms all competing for attention that viewers won't stick with Big Sky long enough to find out what the show really is?

Burke: We are betting that the ABC female viewer knows that we are not going to tell a story that is purely about the victimization of women. It is not readily apparent in the first episode, though there are hints of it. We are asking the audience to be patient.

Kelley: No. You’ve touched on a big problem that broadcast has, in general, in that they want to be all things in a pilot and then what? That’s not my philosophy. My philosophy is let the totality of the series speak for itself. The mission of the pilot is to bring people into a world that they are entertained by, captured by and want to watch another episode. At the end of the first episode, if we have executed it correctly, the audience will want to watch the second. And if they watch the second, I’m hopeful they’ll want to watch the third. And if they watch the third, they will have come to the realization by this time that the people that populate the franchise and the franchise itself is a little more complicated than maybe they first thought it was going to be.

David, you also had a pilot in the works for this season at CBS — a reboot of The Lincoln Lawyer — that was surprisingly passed over. What happened?

Kelley:  [CBS dropped it] right around when the pandemic started. We were ready to roll camera and then covid happened and were put on hold. And while in the holding pattern, there was a big change of mind at the network.

Big Sky, like a number of other productions, had to pause filming briefly after a positive covid test. How has the pandemic changed the way you think about writing scenes?

Kelley: When we started shooting Big Sky we thought maybe it would be over by the time we aired. But it's ongoing in the series but we walk a very delicate line on that. We don't immerse ourselves in a covid world. We have tried to not have covid dictate storyline.

Most of your former broadcast shows really spoke to the masses. Is that still something you see as a possibility considering how politically divided we are as a country?

Kelley: I think writers should write from their own minds and hearts. And if they believe in it, then trust that belief and put it out there and let the audiences decide. I would really worry if some of the brighter minds put down their pens or started censoring themselves for fear of alienating part of the country or world that doesn’t agree with them. We should all put it out there, we have a diverse caldron of storytellers in this town and I think everyone should have their say and hopefully if everyone does then a lot of conflicting messages will be put out and the public can gravitate to what appeals to them.

The TV industry is shifting at breakneck pace. As someone who cares deeply about television, what keeps you up at night?

Kelley: Well, not thinking about the shifting landscape of the television industry because it would keep me up if I worried about it! (Laughing.) As an old writer, the advice I give to young writers is don’t worry about that; write a world and characters that you believe in and hope that the landscape underneath you is there to support it. If you start from a premise, "This is what the landscape is and I’m going to write a show that coincides with that landscape," by the time you finish the pilot, that landscape is going to be shifted again. If you look at so many shows that the current landscape rejected because they weren’t right at the time and the creators who stuck to their guns —All In the Family and Norman Lear, David Chase and The Sopranos, Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm — these were all series that at the time they were being crafted networks weren’t welcoming them with open arms. It fell to the creators to carve out new viewing habits and new television constituencies. That’s writers listening to their writer voices, not their marketing voices.

Karey, you're already developing shows for next season. How have the pitches that you’re hearing and the projects you’re buying changed in recent months care of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter and now with the election?

Burke: There's more of a social consciousness in the pitches that we’re hearing, more thematics, ranging from an understanding that times are tough and audiences may want a viewing experience that is more cathartic and wish fulfillment and escapist on one side of the coin. Then on the other side, there's a stronger sense of storytellers wanting to acknowledge the current seismic things that are going on in our country right now. And there are stories that we haven’t been telling enough and let’s acknowledge those.

ABC famously revived Rosanne after your predecessor mentioned that the network was only programming for blue states. Post-election and given how divisive the country is right now, will that impact you as a programmer?

Burke: I think so. We have to try and reflect as many people in our audience as possible. The election results are a clear acknowledgement that we have an invested country but very divided and there’s many, many points of view.

Will you program for the two Americas?

Burke: Yes. Like Joe Biden, who will be a president for all Americans, I will program for all Americans.

You had Sean Spicer on Dancing With the Stars. With the Trumps eventually out of the White House, is there room for any member of that family on Dancing With the Stars or any other ABC program?

Burke: (Laughing) Oh my god.