“You Kill It, We Grill It.” – Signage for the Dirty Spoon Diner in “Big Sky.”
When we talk about our favorite binge-worthy shows, the discussion inevitably turns to Netflix and other premium streaming services — but good old-fashioned network TV is still capable of delivering addictively entertaining fare, even if you have to wait an entire week (gasp!) between episodes.
Exhibit A: “Big Sky,” a 10-part modern Western noir from David E. Kelley (“Chicago Hope,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Big Little Lies”), premiering Nov. 17 on ABC. Based on the page-turning books of C.J. Box and featuring an outstanding ensemble cast of familiar and reliable veterans as well as talented relative newcomers, this is the kind of show that has you wishing each episode would continue for just a few more minutes, just one more scene, because this is some juicy and lurid stuff and we are HOOKED.
With Vancouver filling in for Montana, “Big Sky” features some lush and breathtaking scenery and no shortage of heart-stopping moments, including a stunning development at the end of the series premiere and I’ll say no more about that. In the opening scenes, we meet the core cast of characters, including:
- Ryan Phillippe’s Cody Hoyt, a self-destructive private detective who has been drummed out of three police forces for his rogue ways.
- Katheryn Winnick’s Jenny Hoyt, Cody’s estranged wife, who has recently learned her best friend has been having an affair with Cody.
- Kylie Bunbury’s Cassie Dewell, a widowed mother, private detective and the aforementioned best friend to Jenny.
- Brian Geraghty’s Ronald Pergman, a 38-year-old big rig driver who lives with his mother (Valerie Mahaffey) and has a dynamic with her that’s only slightly less disturbing than the Norman Bates/mother relationship.
- John Carroll Lynch as Montana State Trooper Rick Legarski, a veteran cop just a few years shy of retirement who has a disturbing and disarming presence.
- Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie Kennedy, who works highway truck stops as a prostitute.
- Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn as Danielle and Grace Sullivan, respectively, teenage sisters making a road trip from Colorado to Montana so Danielle can see her boyfriend Justin (Gage Marsh), the son of Cody and Jenny.
When Danielle and Grace experience car trouble and go missing, private detectives Cody and Cassie launch a frantic investigation, with the assistance of State Trooper Legarski — though Cassie in particular quickly sizes up Legarski as a potential sociopath and is troubled by his speech patterns, which range from the offensively blunt to the weirdly circular. What’s the deal with this guy? The veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch is clearly having the time of his life sinking his teeth into this richly developed character. Even when Legarski is doing something as ostensibly uncomplicated as helping a California tourist whose car is stuck in the mud, he goes off on a chillingly creepy tangent with weird sexual overtones. Again: What IS the deal with this guy? “Big Sky” tackles that question in the second episode, and the answer is possibly even more jarring than we could have guessed.
Even with the artificial breaks that have to be baked into any commercial TV series, “Big Sky” is a well-paced multiple cliffhanger with bursts of violence as well as some exquisitely executed emotional sequences, as when three characters in deep trouble learn they have church and singing experiences in common, and they begin to harmonize. Jesse James Keitel is a standout as Jerrie; a scene in which her truth is revealed is raw and tough to watch, but astonishing in its power, thanks to Keitel’s moving performance. Kylie Bunbury (“When They See Us”) also displays true star power as Cassie, who’s the smartest person in just about any room she enters but has made a stupid mistake in connecting with her best friend’s ex — and the next thing you know, we’ve got a barroom brawl on our hands.
“Big Sky” is set in the here and now; there’s a brief mention of the pandemic at the outset of the series, though it appears nobody in this Montana town can be bothered with social distancing or wearing masks. They’re taking their chances in a rough-and-tumble world where a virus isn’t the only threat looming just around the corner.