“Big Sky” works hard to convince its audience that it’s not like anything else on broadcast network television, or at the very least, not like anything that über-showrunner David E. Kelley has ever done before. ABC’s (only) new fall drama trades TV’s ubiquitous skylines of Los Angeles and New York City for sweeping Montana vistas, traveling along endless Midwest highways and making pit stops at restless small towns and the creaky bars keeping them afloat. It follows a sprawling cast of characters living, physically and metaphorically, worlds apart from the glossy socialites that Kelley’s recently favored in “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing.” And when “Big Sky” does unveil the scope of its pressing mystery, it implicates not just the immediately affected community, but the entire God-fearing United States. Despite its very best efforts to distinguish itself, though, “Big Sky” ends up feeling like less of a twist on a TV mystery than an overwrought indulgence of the genre’s most basic instincts.
Based on CJ Box’s novel “The Highway,” “Big Sky” opens with a series of introductions to a group of seemingly disconnected characters. (It also, strangely enough, includes a few offhand references to taking place Amid Pandemic, a shoehorned detail that’s neither necessary nor makes any sense given the show’s established reality.) In one corner there’s a love triangle between private detectives Cody (Ryan Philippe), Cassie (Kylie Bunbury) and Cody’s estranged wife Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), which barely gets a glancing introduction before it explodes in passionate confrontations and a startling bar brawl. Then there’s Rick (John Carroll Lynch), a state trooper who’d rather wax poetic about duty than look his increasingly frustrated wife in the eye, and Ronald (Brian Geraghty), a lonely trucker with a “Psycho”-esque relationship with his disappointed mother (Valerie Mahaffey). Meanwhile, sisters Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) embark on a road trip to visit Danielle’s boyfriend in Montana that ends abruptly when their car breaks down and, as per the kind of horrifying nightmare that every girl was taught to grow up fearing, they’re promptly kidnapped.
Though apparently dozens of women have recently gone missing along the Montana highway, good college-bound girls Danielle and Grace break the pattern of anonymous prostitutes as victims, and are therefore the ones to trigger any real alarm. (This differentiation, unfortunately, is one of the most realistic aspects of “Big Sky” by a long shot.) In the first two episodes, the series mostly splits its time between the detectives piecing together various evidence and Danielle, Grace and fellow kidnapping victim Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel) trying desperately to understand what’s going on before it’s too late.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, but “Big Sky” nonetheless has trouble making its storylines feel as urgent as they truly are because its characters rarely feel as human as they need to in order for them to land. Much of that comes down to unconvincing combinations of acting and writing; Lind and Winnick in particular have trouble grasping their slippery roles, which in fairness to them, seem to morph into something different with every scene. Those who do manage to break through the crowded narratives notably have more singular parts to play, automatically setting them apart from everyone else’s paint-by-numbers characters. Lynch, one of TV’s most reliable “there’s something off about that guy” guys, turns in a reliably creepy performance. Keitel, saddled with the show’s most self-congratulatory role, conveys more nuanced humanity than the script affords the character. By contrast, it’s a shame that Bunbury, such an immediately winning breakout on Fox’s baseball dramedy “Pitch,” just doesn’t get the room to do the same on “Big Sky” — at least, not yet.
To say much more about what the show’s actually about would get into the kinds of secret specifics that ‘Big Sky” guards with palpable excitement, so they won’t get spoiled here. Some are obvious; others, genuinely surprising. And yet, for all the big swings it takes, “Big Sky” still won’t be much of a shock to the system for anyone even remotely familiar with the tropes it tackles. Not even decamping to Montana can set this story apart from the ones we’ve seen a million times before.
“Big Sky” premieres Tuesday, November 17 at 10 pm on ABC.