David E. Kelly Returns to Network Television With Familiar Thriller ‘Big Sky’

For whatever reason David E. Kelly has returned to network television. The acclaimed writer had garnered his best reviews when jumping into prestige television. It seems he wanted to return to the place that first made his name, programming with commercials. “Big Sky” is an attempt at packing Kelly’s gift for quirky dialogue and compacted corners of America into a thriller. It could work if Kelly figures out precisely how he wants to approach the subject. The first season opens with characters that are surprisingly less engaging than the more recognizable mystery thriller angle. 

Under the big Montana sky we meet Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury), who works at a private detective agency. Tensions arise when fellow detective Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) storms into the office and confronts Cassie for sleeping with her husband, also a detective, Cody (Ryan Phillippe). Cassie is befuddled considering she was under the impression Jenny and Cody were going through a rough patch and separating. This is how friends operate in this town, apparently. Of course Cody isn’t complaining too much because he has complicated feelings for both women. We also meet a state trooper, Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch), who gives bizarre folksy advice to drivers who get stuck on mountainside roads. Into these characters’ lives comes a case involving a threatening trucker, Ronald (Brian Geraghty), who is every hitchhiker’s fear. Into his path fall two unsuspecting, road tripping friends, Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn). Their eventual disappearance could lead the detectives to crack a ring of truckers running a human trafficking operation.

For a thriller there’s not much mystery to the case that opens “Big Sky.” Intercut with the bizarre love triangle between Cassie, Jenny and Cody are scenes where we follow Danielle and Grace all through their road trip. Ronald accosts them on the highway in moments that seem taken out of Spielberg’s “Duel,” and they eventually end up in the back of his big rig, terrified and wondering what fat awaits them. But we already know what can happen to them considering earlier in the episode, we saw a nonbinary character, Jessie (Jesse James Keitel), get into Ronald’s truck and end up in a body bag. 

So we are aware Ronald is a psycho and Danielle and Grace need saving. Kelly, in a sense working backwards, sets this up as the case Cody and his two lovers will now investigate. Kelly, who has yet to top his work on HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” is again adapting previously published material, in this case C.J. Box’s 2013 novel, “The Highway.” He is always attracted to what goes on in America’s forest-strewn, icy corners. The big challenge here is that there’s not much to care about when it comes to the characters. Cody should know better than to be bouncing back and forth between Cassie and Jenny, and when he dies at the end of the season premiere in the episode’s only real twist, we don’t feel as if he’ll be missed much. Kelly’s ear for Aaron Sorkin-style chatter also loses its verve. It’s more corny than engaging, more absurd than genuinely funny. Even a bar fight between Cassie and Jenny feels too forced. 

What does work best about “Big Sky” are the more familiar elements concerning possible corruption in rural Montana, involving the cops and anyone else who might be cavorting with human-trafficking truckers. By the end of the pilot Legarski reveals himself to be a much more insidious player than at the beginning of the episode, who might know much more about the trafficking operation than he lets on. This kind of intrigue always makes for at least some good TV fun. Hopefully Cassie and Jenny develop as well into more engaging characters. Kylie Bunbury and Kathryn Winnick certainly have the chops to hold the show on their own. David E. Kelly has returned to the format that made him. Let’s hope he finds fresh notes to play with familiar instruments.

Big Sky” season one premieres Nov. 17 and airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.