David E. Kelley is one of the hardest working men in television. Mere weeks after the premiere of his HBO mini-series “The Undoing” comes the premiere of his ABC series “Big Sky,” an adaptation of the novel The Highway by thriller writer C.J. Box. There’s a genre of fiction that I used to call “airport books,” the kind of genre writing that one picks up on their way out of town, preferably to read on a beach on somewhere. I’m unfamiliar with Box’s work but the two episodes of “Big Sky” that screened for press feel very much like the product of airport books. The thing is that the contrivances and thin characters that work with a drink in your hand while you're sitting on a beach don’t have the same impact in episodic television. “Big Sky” is a frustrating show, one that can’t find its tone and has that superficial sheen of shallow television that makes its violence against women feel gross. It’s a total waste of time.
Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) is a private detective who works with ex-cop Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe) in Helena, Montana. The show opens by defining their tumultuous relationship through Cody’s wife Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), who correctly accuses Cassie of sleeping with her husband. The Hoyts may be separated but it still feels like a betrayal, and an incredibly cheap way to introduce a female character. The checklist of clichés that Cassie fills out in the first two episodes is something else—she’s the other woman who is also a single mom who also lives with her supportive dad. She’s apparently the central character in the series of books by Box but she feels like something generated by a computer here, in no small part to a flat, boring performance by Bunbury.
The Hoyt’s son Justin (Gage Marsh) is excited about the imminent arrival of his girlfriend Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Danielle's sister Grace (Jade Pettyjohn), but they never arrive. It turns out that this area of Montana has a violent stalker, a truck driver named Ronald Pergman (Brian Geraghty), who is introduced fighting with his mother (Valerie Mahaffey) in order to firmly define him as a Norman Bates-esque psychopath. When Danielle and Grace cross paths with Ronald, they end up kidnapped, which draws Cassie, Cody, and Jenny into an investigation. Their attempts to find Danielle and Grace lead them to a State Trooper named Rick Legarksi, played by the great John Carroll Lynch, the only actor here who seems remotely invested in making “Big Sky” interesting.
That last sentence may seem like an exaggeration but it’s not. The trio of “good guys” in Helena are particularly lazy in the acting and character departments. Phillippe’s approach is half-asleep and Bunbury is stuck with such a non-character as to make no impact at all. To be fair, Pettyjohn tries her best in the second episode, but the biggest problem with “Big Sky” is one of honest atmosphere and stakes. When everything feels so superficial, the violence against women in this show feels grosser. It's cheap and thin instead of character-driven and honestly threatening. And the use of setting and space is just as shallow. It’s the kind of show that features a crooner at a bar belting out “Stand by Your Man” as the two thinly-written female character literally fight over the dullest dude in Montana. It would approach parody if it was more enjoyable.
And that’s the big problem here. If Kelley and company leaned into the clichés of their show a bit more and subverted its familiarity with some personality than “Big Sky” might amount to something. Lynch seems to understand this as the veteran character actor gives his quirky state trooper a little personality. Why make “Big Sky” if it’s just going to check boxes like a TV Thriller Mad Libs? That approach might have worked a decade ago, but TV audiences are smarter now. Too smart for “Big Sky.”
Two episodes screened for review.