Big Sky 1.01 and 1.02: Pilot / Nowhere To Run
There’s something unremittingly grim that Big Sky holds over the viewer in its first two hours, which makes it simultaneously entertaining and also somewhat troubling.
This show marks David E. Kelley’s return to network television after having spent the last few years amassing smash hits for HBO and Amazon Prime Video. Instead of relying on the tried-and-tested formula of his case-of-the-week formats that made him one of the most powerful writers on American television during the 90s and 2000s, he has opted once again for an adaptation of a best-selling crime novel and turned it into a darkly compulsive serial. It's clear at this stage that he decided that this is a winning formula for him and this is how his shows are going to be from now on.
It’s hard to turn away from Big Sky even as you realise just how much it’s drenched in cliché and tropes that you might have thought crime procedurals and television had opted to turn away from. You’ll find yourself drawn in by its world-building and soap operatics amongst its central cast of characters (there is infidelity and marriage separation fuelling much of the first episode). The level of intensity of its serial killer/sex trafficking plotline means you cannot help but be drawn into its dark orbit, even though you might also find yourself screaming at the television about the amount of hoary old crime procedural tropes being thrown at the screen.
Set in mountainous Montana, it’s hard to shake away a feeling of being reminded of Twin Peaks. Are those Douglas Firs up there on those mountains, dotting those picturesque roads where kidnapping and murder are driving so much of the story and which give off a creepy vibe at the dead of night? Why I believe they might be. However, this isn’t a descent into the surreal that characterised Mark Frost and David Lynch’s iconic mystery. In fact, if anything, this feels more like a standard police procedural that has been reformatted into the type of serial that is all the rage nowadays in this golden age of television.
The serialised/adaptation format has given Kelley a chance to get back into the big leagues over the last few years, particularly with Big Little Lies and The Undoing for HBO. Like those series, Big Sky takes its cues from a bestseller, in this case The Highway, part of the Cassie Dewell series from author CJ Box and who is here played by Kyle Bunbury. That Fox has written four other books with the character means that should Big Sky be a success, then there is much in the way of material to mine for future seasons.
While the structure of it might be more evocative of where television storytelling has moved into the last few years, the story itself feels like it’s walked straight out of something that would have been part and parcel of so many network procedurals ten to twenty years ago.
Yes, this is an adaptation of a novel and Kelley is most likely following the template of events as set by Fox. But given that last year Netflix released the superlative documentary Disclosure about how the trans community is portrayed on screen and which (rightfully) called out the cliché of using them as means to be killed by serial killers or depicted as sex workers, it feels like a backwards step here to have a non-binary character, played Jesse James Keitel, depicted as a sex worker and be at the mercy of so many violent scenes.
Of course, there are two other cisgender victims that Keitel’s character ends up locked in a giant box with, the possibility of being sold into the sex slave trade a threat that hangs over their every scene. Given that the series is set in a location where, in real-life, a high number of missing persons are those who are Native and Indigenous women, and that the series is focusing squarely on victims who are caucasian, cannot help but leave the viewer with a sour taste over the story and its choice of location.
That the series is somewhat entertaining only adds to the issues here. In some respects, it's the worst kind of good television series. The combination of writer Kelley and director McGuigan know what they are doing here, because they've done this sort of thing in the past and have their approaches down to a fine art. Kelley clearly knows how to adapt mysteries for the small screen and in a way that cannot help but draw you in. McGuigan has mastered the type of cinematic direction that we expect from television from working on Sherlock.
That combination combined with high production values cannot help but make for a compulsive show and you will find yourself drawn into the soap operatics of its main characters, intense set-pieces which border on a horror movie and cliff-hanger endings. You'll find yourself turning your eyes at some of those cliches for sure, yet you know that you'll know you'll be back for the next episode and hate yourself for it.
Some of the more outrageous elements to it are an attempt to be shocking, but honestly, it's nothing you haven't seen before. Is that John Carroll Lynch playing a nice guy before it's revealed he really isn't a nice guy? Why yes, because he's John Carroll Lynch and that's the type of character he plays all the time now. There are the weirdly icky moments between the series' central serial killer villain and his mother which are all very Norman Bates and Psycho and which every television serial killer since has basically emulated.
Then there's the final scene of the first episode that's meant to be a shocker, although, in all honesty, it's easy to see it coming twenty minutes into the episode and which has little to no impact even though it's supposed to be a jaw-dropping moment. It does ensure that you will come back for the next episode, that much is certain, but you'll hate yourself for falling prey to Kelley's manipulative storytelling.