'Big Sky' takes a deadly detour into the dark side of the heartland

Posted November 17, 2020 1:42 p.m. EST

— "Big Sky" starts out feeling like another quirky drama -- a generation-later heir to David E. Kelley's "Picket Fences" -- before morphing into something much darker, which turns out to be pretty surprising and compelling once you get past the clunky and unpleasant task of setting it all up.

Kelley -- the creator of shows like "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice" -- has more recently migrated to premium TV (see HBO's "Big Little Lies" and "The Undoing"), which makes his broadcast return something of an occasion. ABC also gambled on the show, jumping straight to a series order -- bypassing the usual pilot process -- in a Covid-impacted program-development season.

Here, the prolific writer is again working from a book, this time C.J. Box's "The Highway" novels. The story focuses on a pair of teenage sisters who get kidnapped in rural Montana, gradually peeling back layers to reveal a menacing, hidden underbelly of the heartland.

A topnotch cast helps elevate the material, with Ryan Phillippe as Cody Hoyt, a private eye engaged in a mini-soap opera involving his estranged wife Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), an ex-cop, and his business partner Cassie (Kylie Bunbury). The three get drawn into the larger plot when the teens -- on a road trip to visit the Hoyts' son -- are snatched by a predator.

File that sequence under the heading of "Teenagers do dumb things in movies and TV," violating rules about strange truck drivers and turning off the main highway onto lonely back roads. The whole thing has an unfortunate, slightly uncomfortable slasher-movie vibe.

Concern about their disappearance brings the private investigators into contact with a local highway patrolman (the always excellent John Carroll Lynch), and begins to pull back the curtain on what a headline summarizes as rural Montana's "abduction problem."

The pulpy, serialized plot has more of a cable texture, certainly compared to procedural network dramas. That said, the women-in-peril aspect is only one of the ways in which the set-up comes across as dated -- including a disturbing character (Brian Geraghty) with mommy issues -- veering closer to what feels like "The Silence of the Lambs" territory than the wide-open spaces.

That's offset, to some extent, by the strength of the female characters, including Winnick ("Vikings") and Bunbury ("Pitch"), who even engage in a bar brawl during the early going.

The idea of dark secrets in small towns is as old as the hills (or the "Twin Peaks), and "Big Sky" possesses its share of throwback qualities.

Still, Kelley's writing deftly pulls the audience along from twist to twist, at least through the two episodes previewed. How well that bodes for the long haul remains to be seen, but at least out of the gate "Big Sky" gets considerable mileage out of this premise, turning a misguided detour into what looks like a very dark trip.

"Big Sky" premieres Nov. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC and will be available the next day on Hulu.

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