The best thing to happen in the Big Sky pilot—other than everything John Carroll Lynch and Valerie Mahaffey are doing, as unsettling as it all is—is its “twist” ending. For the past week or so, ABC’s promotion for the series has been banging the drum of watching the premiere until the end. And for good reason, as it’s a moment that works very hard to convince viewers to stick around for at least another week. It’s also, arguably, the most necessary decision for the new series to make at the top, even though it doesn’t absolve it of so many of its other issues.
After all the intriguing series promotion and the subsequent underwhelming expectations set by the immediately-introduced love triangle between P.I. duo Cody Hoyt (Ryan Philippe) and Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) and Cody’s estranged ex-cop wife Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), Big Sky does what it needs to do at the end of the pilot by having Montana State Trooper Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch) straight up shoot Cody in the head. In fact, Cody’s fate is a saving grace for Big Sky, even if it—again—doesn’t fix all of the series’ issues.
As Big Sky reveals throughout its pilot that it is not the attempt at a new Twin Peaks that its promotion’s suggested—or even a new Picket Fences, to keep it in the David E. Kelley family—the Cody character exists as the clearest sign. Easily the weakest link of the leading trio, Cody also encompasses the bland procedural version of Big Sky that the series is at its ridiculous best when it bucks against. While the love triangle starts the series off in a mud pit it struggles to drive itself out of, it’s clear immediately—or at least right before Jenny and Cassie’s bar fight set to “Stand By Your Man”—that Winnick and Bunbury have an instant chemistry that makes one think, “It’s a shame that hinges on them fighting over this boring dude who can’t make up his mind.” They’re still the stars of that same bland procedural, but at least there’s a sense of hope that they can transcend it. Especially if Big Sky makes it past a first season, as it clearly paves a way for Jenny and Cassie as the new Hoyt and Dewell P.I. duo.
That final scene confirms what was already apparent about Cody with every other scene he’d been in, whether it was intentional or not: He’s not a character, he’s a conflict and a catalyst. That the show introduces Winnick and Bunbury’s characters first, with no care to even address where Phillippe’s is, tips the show’s hand that he’s really not the series’ focus, even if the promos suggest otherwise. Plus, this episode reveals more about what Cody’s supposedly been telling the women in his life than actually inviting the audience into his psyche as a man who is losing his marriage and possibly his son. The latter is a question because when Justin (Gage Marsh), Cody and Jenny’s son, calls Cody about his missing girlfriend, it’s only because he attempted to call Jenny first and she didn’t answer. If Cody were better written here, maybe it wouldn’t be worth rejoicing that he’s taken off the chessboard so soon. Then again, at least Big Sky doesn’t waste the audience’s time in getting them attached to Cody, even if it does insist on introducing the unnecessary love triangle in the first place.
Now, while it’s his return to network television, Big Sky isn’t an original David E. Kelley property. It’s an adaptation of C.J. Box’s 2013 novel The Highway, the first of the Cassie Dewell novels, and Big Sky takes its cue from the book, as Cody—first introduced in Box’s 2011 novel Back of Beyond—is killed halfway through. But despite proving her capabilities as a lead in Fox’s short-lived Pitch, Bunbury is clearly not the lead in this pilot. That could change moving forward, but she is second-billed after Winnick, she takes a backseat here to faux lead Phillippe, and she’s treated more as a hurdle to Hoyt family reconciliation than the character on which this show is based. And with missing sisters Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lynd) and Grace Sullivan (Jade Pettyjohn) setting things into motion, the Hoyts are also put front and center as heroes based on that connection.
Yet based on what I’ve read about The Highway, Big Sky is, in some ways, an improvement. The exception is the characterization of Cody, but ultimately, what it seems like Kelley is trying to do is find the female empowerment angle in a story where it’s easy to get lost in the female degradation. Even if it’s just a little touch like making Danielle and Grace’s road trip a planned visit to see Justin, as opposed to in the book, where it’s a desperate attempt on Danielle’s end. However, like in the book, for the story to get the ball rolling on solving the mystery, it has to have Danielle and Grace be abducted for the dumbest reason possible. With Danielle, the pilot presents the question of if her existence is meant to eventually subvert expectations as the series goes on, because yes, teenagers are immature, but the amount of rage—that goes far past normal road rage or even Mean Girl status—present in Danielle to cause her to retaliate against a trucker in the first place either suggests something else at play with the character or Box and Kelley not having any idea how to get from Point A to Point B with this part of the story. Chances are high that it’s the latter, because having been a teenage girl who hung out with other teenage girls, none of us would’ve been stupid enough to try to get the attention of a trucker for anything other than a good-natured horn honk.
Plus, I’ve seen the movie Joy Ride. So it at least makes sense why trucker Ronald (Brian Geraghty) behaves the way he does.
Of the criticism I’ve read of The Highway, a lot of it boils down to the way that Box seemingly took glee in describing the disgusting behavior of its villain, “The Lizard King.” (Truckstop sex workers are known as “lot lizards.”) With Big Sky, as repugnant as the glee that comes in depicting its villains remains, it’s also the part of the series that allows for the interesting presentation that promotion for Big Sky promised. It allows for the contrast between the beauty of Montana (British Columbia) and the seedy underbelly hiding right under everyone’s noses. It allows for the actually interesting part of the show that one just wishes Winnick and Bunbury could be allowed to actively be part of. And maybe they will in the future. But it’s a problem that the series comes to a screeching halt when it’s not playing in that disgusting-yet-chipper environment. Because that environment is where the series’ actors are allowed to play, and unfortunately, its leads aren’t invited to the game.
With all the discussion of Big Sky being ABC and David E. Kelley’s attempt at a new Twin Peaks, it is unfortunate that that’s not actually what it is. (It’s not even a new Happy Town.) It’s for the best that it’s not actually trying to be that in terms of audience expectations and reality, but it’s still disappointing. There are touches of it in Ronald’s scenes, especially with his mother, Helen (Mahaffey, a breath of fresh air laced in all things Bates family), and in both Legarski’s work and home scenes. But even the small-town quirkiness that was promised would make the series more interesting than it is, and it’s not really present outside of the antagonists’ scenes. Paul McGuigan’s direction leans into this, but again, mostly outside of the scenes focused on our heroes. Even before the mystery is set in motion, as Jenny is at the diner alone, while there is a sense of familiarity surrounding her, this pilot does not work hard to establish that overall. In fact, the strangest aspect of the series may be the fact that Cody, Jenny, and Cassie are written like outsiders popping into Montana, despite that not actually being the case.
Actually, the strangest aspect is that it apparently takes place during the current pandemic. The series is already better when it exists outside of the real, current world—which also makes Ronald having a cell phone and video calls with his mother feel out of place, in a bad way—but it’s actively bad in mentioning the pandemic for no real reason. Big Sky seemingly wants to ground itself in the real world, which is the last thing anyone expected or would even want out of this. The real world sucks enough, so the least this story of truly awful people doing truly awful things can do is exist in a slightly askew world. Which it does—except for when it doesn’t.
Big Sky has the makings of appointment television, as much as appointment television can exist on network television in 2020. ABC’s promotion of the pilot’s final beat will surely have audiences talking, and it’s the kind of hook that at least creates interest in a second episode. When you factor in the off-kilter and scenery-chewing performances of Lynch and Mahaffey, that should also be enough to make the show worth talking about, even if nothing else does. And of course, there’s the fact that this is Kelley’s return to network television, even though it’s not a true return to form in the sense of an original series.
Most importantly, Big Sky is ABC’s only new drama for the 2020-2021 series. The network is clearly banking on it to succeed, and considering it has no other new drama competition on the network, maybe that (and Kelley’s presence) is really all that it needs to succeed. But as a story and a fully compelling show, it needs to do a lot more.
- I’m LaToya Ferguson, your Big Sky reviewer for this season. I’ll be honest: I’m mostly covering this show because I want to feel again after ABC canceled Whiskey Cavalier and then personally tricked me by renewing Stumptown and then canceling it. Actually, I don’t know if I’ve actually felt anything since the Quantico Season Two premiere, when they did this. I’m also quite familiar with the work of David E. Kelley—I even liked The Crazy Ones—and have spent most of this month talking about Ally McBeal on podcasts that aren’t about Ally McBeal.
- It’s not much a shock that Lynch’s Legarski is the Big Bad, since from the moment he’s introduced—inappropriately talking about a tourist’s love life, as “easy peasy” as it is—it’s clear something is genuinely off about him. And that only continues in his scenes with his wife, Merrilee (Brooke Smith), especially when he’s slurping his soup. This is an episode of television that gets a lot of mileage out of the sound of Lynch eating. As for Geraghty, Big Sky really taps into an uneasiness and uncomfortableness that I’ve found he always brings to his characters.
- Valerie Mahaffey is a David E. Kelley alum, having appeared in L.A. Law, Ally McBeal, Boston Public, and Monday Mornings (where she was recurring). I do not see her character making it out of this season alive, but I am excited to see what more she does to upset Ronald (and possibly the audience).
- Denise, Cody and Cassie’s assistant, is played by Kelley’s sister-in-law, Deedee Pfeiffer. My interest was piqued when I originally saw that she was cast, but I honestly didn’t recognize her at first.
- While the abduction of Danielle and Grace comes from a place of a character doing something so dumb to get the ball rolling, it’s worth noting that Kelley takes care to present sex worker Jerrie (Jessie James Keitel, a nonbinary actor whose pronouns are they/them and she/her) with a real sensitivity and without judgment. (I’ll admit, her scene with Ronald almost got me to think everything would be fine.) The most brutally honest part of the pilot is when it’s revealed that no one really looked into the missing women before because they were all sex workers.
- While the chase scene was a brand of absurdity I’d appreciate more if the show realized it was absurd—especially with Ronald turning up the radio—I thought the girls’ failed attempt to fight back against him worked much better.
- I have no doubt Phillippe will show up in flashbacks or ghost protocols or whatever to get more out of the character. But the worst part of his untimely demise is the fact that we don’t get to check out the cult yet (if at all), which sounds pretty interesting. Despicable but interesting. Especially if they’re all like Legarski.