'Big Sky': TV Review

Big Sky - RYAN PHILLIPPE
Courtesy of ABC
If a pilot is exploitative garbage, but knows it's exploitative garbage, does that make it less exploitative?
11/17/2020

David E. Kelley returns to broadcast TV with a star-studded, serialized mystery that plays as 'Criminal Minds,' with a twist.

After watching two episodes of ABC's new drama Big Sky, from creator David E. Kelley, I've narrowed my responses down to a pair of possibilities: The first is that despite a strong creative team and a cast of TV favorites, Big Sky is a very bad show. It's tawdry and manipulative, basically ABC's version of Criminal Minds. And I'm fully aware lots of folks loved Criminal Minds. The second is that the pilot for Big Sky is a feint, a misdirect, a near-parody of tawdry and manipulative shows like Criminal Minds and the violence against women that fuels them. The second episode, then, is much closer to the actual show that Kelley and company want to be making. It unfortunately happens that the second episode isn't very good, either. But it at least opens the door to the interpretation that a more intellectually curious show is unfolding.

My instinct, for what it's worth, is that the second possibility is the correct one, but either way my recommendation is the same: Don't watch the first episode of Big Sky on Tuesday night.

If you're intrigued by Big Sky, wait a week and binge the first two episodes, which is really how ABC should have premiered the show anyway. Kelley has been working on cable for so long that he may think viewer buy-in automatically comes multiple episodes at a time. I would argue, on the contrary, that viewers are every bit as likely to check out of Big Sky within 20 minutes as they are to get to the twist ending and have the patience to wait seven days to see what the real show is. It's a lot to ask for what is, in my most generous estimation, a wobbly payoff thus far.

Kelley is working here from C.J. Box's The Highway, one of four books focusing on private investigator Cassie Dewell. You would not necessarily know from the first two episodes that Cassie (Kylie Bunbury) is supposed to be the protagonist on Big Sky, because she's caught in a cliché-ridden love triangle with fellow detective Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe) and Cody's semi-estranged wife, former cop Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick). As you can guess from the title, the action in Big Sky takes place in Montana (British Columbia). The plot is set in motion when Jenny and Cody's utterly generic son's (Gage Marsh) girlfriend (Natalie Alyn Lind) and her sister (Jade Pettyjohn) vanish, forcing the detectives to confront a recent rash of truck-stop abductions.

That side of the plot involves Ronald (Brian Geraghty), a trucker whose predilection for scooping up truck-stop prostitutes — including trans aspiring singer Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel) — would be a spoiler, except that between his overbearing mother and a strange fundamentalist religious streak, Ronald is, to use the Criminal Minds parlance, the unsubbiest unsub who ever unsubbed.

The first episode of Big Sky, directed by Paul McGuigan, is a voyeuristic slasher drama that seems determined to not just embrace but pander to all of the worst instincts of the genre. From the introduction of our two main characters catfighting over a man (and this is Phillippe at his absolute dullest, probably not a person worth fighting over) to a menaced trans victim to having Lind and Pettyjohn's characters threatened repeatedly and then abducted and tortured multiple times, it's exploitative garbage. Is it exploitative garbage that knows it's exploitative garbage?

Here, I would argue, "Yes. Probably." The second episode marks a transition from portraying women as victims to something closer to a female revenge drama more in the recent vein of Kevin Williamson's Tell Me a Story, Marc Cherry's Why Women Kill and Josh Corbin's Reprisal. And if you're looking at that list going either, "That's not especially successful company to be in!" or, "So, um, where are the female revenge dramas created by women?" I'm right there with you. I can understand McGuigan directing the pilot, but it's hard for me to fathom why the second episode wasn't directed by a woman. This should be a study in reversing the camera's gendered gaze and it surely is not.

It's not that this sort of upheaval of genre expectations is inherently a bad idea. It just isn't easy, and Kelley undermines his own aspirations with a fascination with the show's glibly quotable villains. That keeps Big Sky poorly focused even in a second episode that should be the moment your expectations are overturned, rather than another hour of rudimentarily psychoanalyzing predators while female and nonbinary characters are huddling together crying. My hunch would be that the reversal of course isn't a magical thing meant to happen in totality between the shocking conclusion of the first episode and the second. But this is not good enough to keep me curious as to whether, by the sixth or seventh episode, Big Sky stops geeking out on its antagonists and starts giving its heroines something to do.

With Bunbury and Winnick, Big Sky has two stars who are unimpeachably capable of the sort of pulp badassery the show might eventually aspire to. Winnick, whose Vikings queen Lagertha is one of the great unsung characters of the past 20 years, at least gets to show some emotional range, albeit range borne of whimpering infidelity and melodramatic betrayal. So far, her background as a cop is manifest not in any intuition or swagger, but in having a still-active login to some law enforcement database. Bunbury spends more time being slobbered over than she does asserting authority. Character introductions are such a key piece of storytelling and even if you're trying to be subversive, selling out both of your main characters is a strange initial strategy.

Lind, Pettyjohn and Keitel are all characterized by vulnerability, and I guess they cry and cower admirably. I know with certainty that they're supposed to eventually prove to be surprisingly resilient, but I can't review what I haven't seen.

There's a deep and exceptional supporting cast including John Carroll Lynch, Valerie Mahaffey and Brooke Smith, whose presence mostly made me think of how many of the woman-in-peril tropes Silence of the Lambs inverts are being played ostensibly straight in the Big Sky pilot.

The first two episodes are certainly beautifully shot and feature hints of the sort of small-town quirkiness Kelley has often enjoyed playing around with. Add those elements to the cast and there are things for Big Sky to work with.

Still, if this were the new offering from the showrunner of a mid-series stretch of Criminal Minds, I would probably be calling Big Sky one of the worst shows of the year and a distressing waste of talent. The issue is one of benefit-of-the doubt. Kelley's track record is far from perfect, but to me he's earned some faith. Any confidence or optimism I might have about Big Sky and its desire to lure viewers in with the first episode and then pull the rug out from under those expectations is based on respect for Kelley and his genre instincts. I'm assuming the series order from ABC was based on something similar. How many viewers will make the same accommodations is a different question.

Cast: Kylie Bunbury, Katheryn Winnick, Natalie Alyn Lind, Jade Pettyjohn, Jesse James Keitel, John Carroll Lynch, Brian Geraghty, Ryan Phillippe

Creator: David E. Kelley from the book by C.J. Box

Airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT starting Nov. 17.