Television

Big Sky Brings Big Thrills to the Small Screen

David E. Kelley orchestrates another excellent drama.

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Big Sky. ABC. Tuesday, November 17, 10 p.m.

A few weeks back, in a review of HBO's The Undoing, I wrote of David E. Kelley's "amazing transformation" from the ratings-restrained world of broadcast television to cable, where he's turned out a string of intelligent and exciting suspense series unequaled by any another producer I can think of in the history of the medium." It seems I was a little premature—not about The Undoing, which is a brilliant piece of work—but about Kelley's ability to work within the constraints of broadcast TV. Big Sky, his new ABC series, is a muzzle-velocity suspense drama that's easily the best broadcast show of 2020.

Unlike Kelley's other recent works, which use violence as a lens to refract class conflict (The Undoing and HBO's Big Little Lies) or aging and redemption (the now-defunct Audience Network's Mr. Mercedes trilogy), Big Sky is an unadorned crime thriller that goes straight for the throat.

A couple of teenage sisters on a road trip to visit a boyfriend are snatched off a remote stretch of Montana highway by men whose appetites fall somewhere between those of Hannibal Lecter and the Marquis de Sade. A team of ex-cop private investigators with a personal connection to the missing girls swings into action before the thinly stretched local law enforcement and quickly discover the abductions are not a one-off crime but part of a years-old pattern.

Shots are fired, Tasers are zapped, tables are turned, genders are bent, and stomachs are twisted. With echoes of PsychoSilence of the Lambs, and the old Steven Spielberg film Duel, Big Sky is a wild, fast and contorted ride that leaves its audience gasping—sometimes for breath, sometimes to control gag reflexes.

For all the action, it's the writing that makes Big Sky sing. Kelley has taken a bunch of hopelessly cliched characters and made them sing. Jerrie Kennedy (played by former makeup artist Jesse James Keitel) divides her time between gigs as a country singer and a truck stop hooker (or "human relations," as she calls it). The teenage Sullivan sisters Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind, The Goldbergs) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn, Little Fires Everywhere) have allowed genetics to define their relationship. "I got the good judgment," says Grace. "You got the boobs." Adds Danielle, reprovingly: "And the butt."

Long-haul driver Ronald Pergman (Brian GeraghtyChicago PD) grates under his mother's complaints that when her friends brag about their lawyer and doctor kids, her only reply is that her 40-ish live-at-home son "drives a really big truck." Retorts Ronald, sounding like a Peterbilt version of Milton Friedman: "This country's in a supply-chain crisis. The trucker is today's American hero." Glad-handing highway patrolman Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch, The Americans) turns broody when the subject of his wife and her "menopause talk at the dinner table" comes up. And the private investigators (Katheryn Winnick of Vikings, Kylie Bunbury of Pitch and Ryan Phillippe), all former cops chased off for breaking rules, are no more adept at following the regulations on office romances in their new firm. Big Sky has plenty of bang-bang and vroom-vroom, but even when the noise level drops, the interest level doesn't.

If you like these characters, you may be seeing a lot of them. Many of them  recur throughout the 20 or so books of best-selling Wyoming novelist C.J. Box, whose The Highway was the source of Big Sky. I don't know Box's work, but he's apparently touched a nerve in Hollywood—four of his other books are under option for films or TV series. Be careful who you kill off, Mr. Box. You may need some of these guys later.

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  5. It is worth reading the first C. J. Box books in the ranger Joe Pickett series, for a libertarian, if you like light mysteries. Box is a gracious, positive writer who represents values different from the politically correct slant of most urban authors. Think Clint Eastwood, only sweet.

    Popular entertainment media can normalize values. I have read his books for a long time and am glad it looks as though Box is being rewarded with the Big Time for his popular, successful series. They are hearty American fare, comfort food, charming diversion for an insomniac.

  6. Kelley’s network shows, from Picket Fences, to the Practice, to Ally McBeal, to Boston Public, Chicago Hope, etc., always start strong and then collapse under the weight of their own perceived cleverness.

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