Broadcast networks will never be able to compete with cable or streaming when it comes to top-shelf dramas. As a rule, pay TV offers bigger budgets, more creative freedom, more leeway to explore adult themes and more flexibility in season and episode length. Still, every once in a while (though increasingly rarely of late) a broadcaster will resist the mandate to churn out nothing but cost-effective primetime procedurals and set to work on something more ambitious.
ABC is marketing Big Sky, which premieres on Nov. 17, as precisely that: a polished, sophisticated, boundary-pushing prestige thriller of the kind that major networks almost never make anymore. Adapted from a series of novels by C.J. Box, it’s a lightning-paced crime story from the sought-after creator David E. Kelley, who was known for broadcast blockbusters like Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal before he was known for Big Little Lies. And it’s not shy about inviting comparisons to classics. As its title suggests, the show is set in Montana. It opens with a montage of natural beauty straight out of the Twin Peaks (which had its original two-season run on ABC) credits sequence—snow-capped mountains, dramatic waterfalls, evergreen forests—before opening in the familiar environs of a frozen-in-time diner called the Dirty Spoon.
The show doesn’t come close to equaling David Lynch’s sui generis philosophical murder soap. (To be fair, neither does 99.999% of content released by cable channels or streaming services.) It’s far more visceral than cerebral. And for all its crisp, immersive cinematography and timely themes, it still feels more like a network potboiler than a groundbreaking work of art. All you can really ask of this kind of series is that it’s entertaining, and in that respect Big Sky delivers.
Because so much of that entertainment comes from the ridiculously frequent twists, it would be cruel to give away anything major. Suffice to say that the plot revs up with the kidnapping of two teenage sisters, Danielle (The Gifted’s Natalie Alyn Lind) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn of Little Fires Everywhere, an early standout), on a road-trip to visit Danielle’s boyfriend. Throughout the premiere, we meet other rural types whose ties to the crime take a while to tease out. Cassie (Kylie Bunbury, a star in search of a vehicle since her charismatic turn in Fox’s frustratingly short-lived Pitch) and Cody (Ryan Phillippe) are private detectives turned lovers—a relationship that doesn’t exactly delight Cody’s estranged wife Jenny (Vikings star Katheryn Winnick). Truck driver Ronald (Brian Geraghty of NBC’s Chicago franchise) lives with his nagging mom (a reliably over-the-top Valerie Mahaffey). Rick (the wonderful John Carroll Lynch) is a folksy state trooper whose wife (Brooke Smith of Grey’s Anatomy) won’t stop complaining about menopause.
This isn’t the most imaginative cast of characters, though the subversion of stereotypes can sometimes make for great TV (see: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Divergent performance styles among the lead actors doesn’t help; Winnick’s stagey line readings can sound affected in the context of frequent scene partner Bunbury’s easy naturalism. But, in the two episodes provided for review, the bigger problem is in the lack of specificity in the way those characters are written. There’s an unbridgeable divide between the show’s good guys, who are normal (if pugnacious) human beings, and its villains, all of whom come off as cartoonishly odd and unhinged.
While it’s true that its themes are fairly progressive by the retrograde standards of network television, Big Sky nonetheless feels years behind the cultural conversation. There is a current of vague, girl-power feminism running through this story, which sends female investigators on a search for two teen-girl kidnapping victims endowed with far more agency than the typical crime-drama dead girl. The misogyny they’re battling is so over-the-top as to feel goofy rather than menacing. Meanwhile, the nonbinary actor Jesse James Keitel brings grace, intelligence and self-awareness to a history-making role—but their character Jerrie is a sex worker whose anatomy becomes a plot point early in the season, despite years of pushback from trans and gender-nonconforming actors about roles that fetishize their bodies. “Aw, sugar, I’m not the type that people fall in love with,” Jerrie remarks at one point, as though abjection is an obvious and necessary component of this identity.
The attention to detail is lacking, too. ABC’s only new drama this fall, Big Sky is sloppy in its evocation of what is supposed to be the present. “San Francisco! Sanctuary city!” Rick exclaims, somewhat scornfully, when he discovers the hometown of a tourist stuck on a muddy road. Yet despite a handful of such hyper-politicized moments, the show is set during the current pandemic and no one ever wears a mask. This probably has more to do with aesthetics than with the characters’ politics, but the unremarked-upon choice creates cognitive dissonance. The virus plays such a tiny part in early episodes that I wondered why Kelley didn’t just write around it.
Still, the show, in its network-y clumsiness, offers something that failed pay-TV dramas rarely achieve: fun. Recall Kelley’s other recent crime thriller, HBO’s The Undoing. Yes, that Manhattan murder mystery has bigger stars, more consistent performances and more highbrow dialogue. It’s also blander and grayer and more predictable; even its sumptuous rich-people apartments feel dreary. (Plus, Montana-style “cabincore” design is so big right now.) And if Big Sky can feel glib in its exploration of many themes, then the ideas that emerge in The Undoing amount to a jumble of psychobabble and cliché. Both shows might well be on a road to nowhere, but only one promises a wild ride.