Another Feather in David E. Kelley’s Crowded Cap
It took awhile for one of the legends of great television in the mid-1990s to realize the genius of Peak TV. David E. Kelley was the matter of great television in Picket Fences, Ally McBeal and The Practice, all of which won Emmys for either Best Drama or Best Comedy. But he became far too formulaic even in his best shows in the first decade of the new millennium and it seemed the Golden Age had left him behind.
In the past few years, he has returned guns blazing. Big Little Lies remains on my list of great shows as either a limited series or a real one, and this season’s The Undoing looks like it will be another triumph for Kelley and Nicole Kidman, who already won an Emmy for her work with him. Now for the first time since Harry’s Law was cancelled in 2013, Kelley has returned to broadcast television. And for the first time in a very long time, he’s nowhere near a courtroom or Boston, for that matter.
Big Sky as the title indicates is set in Montana. It deals primarily with the very complicated relationship between two female private investigators: Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick, late of The Vikings) and Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury). Their relationship has always been edgy, and in the first ten minutes of the Pilot it becomes explosive when Jenny figures out that Cassie has been sleeping with her husband Cody (Ryan Philippe), who she was separated from. The two end up getting in a bar fight and things are not resolved one iota when Jenny and Cody go home and promptly have sex.
They don’t have time to start dealing for long though. Jenny and Cody’s college age girlfriend Danielle is driving cross country with her sister Grace (Little Fires Everywhere standout Jade Pettyjohn) and just they arrive in Montana, Grace gets cut off by a long haul trucker and gets very aggressive on the road. This would be a bad idea on the best of circumstances, but we’ve already met the driver, Ronald. And he’s just finished kidnapping a prostitute. Less than an hour later, he crashes into their car and takes them prisoner.
For all the conventions that we’ve seen in so many thrillers like this, Big Sky avoids some of them, and uses the rest for maximum effect. It helps that all of the performers are good at their job, but by far the pest is John Carroll Lynch as State Trooper Rick Legarski. Over the past twenty years as a symbol of goodness in the majority of his roles. We knew him as Marge Gunderson’s husband in Fargo, he was charming as Drew’s cross-dressing brother in The Drew Carey Show, and until fairly recently almost always been cast as the symbol of stout goodhearted Middle America. We’re inclined to believe that in much of the Pilot that he’s going to be a good-hearted, if a trifle annoying, assistant to the hunt for the circles. So when in the last minute of the Pilot, he casually says: “One more thing” and then cold-bloodedly and matter-of-factly shoots Cody in the face, and then gets out of the car, makes a call, and says” Ronald, you’ve been sloppy” we know we’re not in Poland, New Hampshire any more. In the second episode, he becomes darker and more creepy, so much so that when Kyle reluctantly lets him in her car, there’s more suspense in the sequence than I remember from a broadcast television moment in a very long time.
It also helps that we spend nearly as much time with Danielle, Grace and Denise, a prostitute holding more secrets than Ronald expected than we do with the investigators. These are not the meek victims that we’ve seen in far too many procedurals over the years. These girls know that the danger is very big, but they — particularly Grace — is determined to do everything they possibly can to save themselves. It helps matters that Ronnie is not the typical psychopath we’ve seen; he’s easily bullied not just by Rick, but by his own mother, who he has a very creepy relationship with. He might end up killing all of them, but he might not, and that’s a genuinely level of surprise that I don’t remember ever seeing in Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU.
I’m not going to lie; Big Sky is not an easy watch, and I imagine a lot of people will hear the formula and just turn away. But this is a show as willing to take risks as many of the best cable and streaming networks. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen any network show be willing to kill off what looked to be a lead character in the first episode.
I’m told that Kelley that adapted this book from a series of mysteries novels. More than anything else, this tells me that Kelley is as good at adapting complicated stories as fellow writer Aaron Sorkin. It’s not as good as Lies or Undoing, but for Kelley in the medium he called home the longest, this is a brave new world for him.
My score: 4.25 stars.