ABC's Big Sky Has a COVID Problem

Setting your show in the pandemic is one thing. Not being responsible about it is another.
  • Kylie Bunbury and Katheryn Winnick, not practicing social distancing or face masking, in Big Sky. (ABC)
    Kylie Bunbury and Katheryn Winnick, not practicing social distancing or face masking, in Big Sky. (ABC)
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    I pasted my unique single-use code into the web browser last Thursday and finally got to see the pilot episode of Big Sky, the new ABC thriller from David E. Kelley. ABC has been holding this pilot tight to its vest in the hopes of keeping its secrets off the Internet. Critics were herded into a “virtual premiere event” that was notable for its security and multiple warnings not to give away the episode’s key reveals. Because there’s nothing this television critic enjoys more than spoiling a show for his readers.

    Well, I watched Big Sky — enjoyed it, more than I thought I would — and realized that there was precious little I could actually tell you about it other than what’s in the trailer. My guess is that ABC would prefer I write as little as possible about the episode itself and instead use this space flattering Big Sky by comparing it to Twin Peaks. (Show set in the spooky Northwest — check. Cast of oddballs — check. Shocking reveals — of course.) Or maybe True Detective. (I do like the dynamic duo at the heart of this show, played by Katheryn Winnick and Kylie Bunbury, who call back to the rough-and-tumble TV detective shows of my youth.)

    But there's something else about this show that began to really stick in my craw as I watched the pilot.

    Big Sky is set in my home state of Montana, known officially as the Treasure State but everyone calls it Big Sky Country. From the show’s teaser promos, those in the know have probably already made out that ABC isn’t using the real Montana as a backdrop. The state doesn’t offer bribes to TV shows to shoot there, perhaps because voters in the state are already resentful of how many Californians have moved there. ABC was planning to shoot Big Sky in New Mexico and Nevada, but then COVID moved things north to British Columbia. So if Big Sky looks like a hundred teen dramas on the CW, that’s why. Still, the show itself is unmistakably planted in Montana, with signs, state flags, county-specific license plates, and a main character who’s a Montana Highway Patrolman. And our heroes don’t have their detective agency in some fake burg like Twin Peaks or Smallville, but in the central business district of Helena, the actual state capital of Montana.

    But this verisimilitude only goes so far. Big Sky revolves around some pretty white women who go missing, which is not a huge problem in real-life Montana, unlike, say, the crisis of missing Indian women. Dozens of Native women and girls have disappeared in the 100-mile radius surrounding my home town of Billings. Tribal leaders have complained for years that law enforcement doesn’t make finding them a priority. And it’s not just Montana — thousands of indigenous women in America and Canada have simply vanished. You can bet that wouldn’t happen if they looked like the actors in Big Sky.

    If Kelley wants to use Montana for his archetypal wooded void in which bad things happen, that’s his choice and I’m OK with it. What I’m not OK with — at least in the way it's executed — is the decision to set Big Sky in Montana during the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, there is a scene — a very critical scene — where the pandemic plays a role in setting up a shocking plot twist … that I will not reveal here. During this scene, despite the mention of an outbreak, nobody wears a mask or socially distances. In fact, the entire episode is shot this way, like it’s 2019 and nobody has heard of COVID-19. There is a bar that everyone frequents, where no one wears a mask. A truck stop, again unmasked. Even on the show’s main set, a detective agency in downtown Helena with beautiful floors that only a mask-wearing Hollywood lib could design, people yell at each other with nothing to catch their spittle.

    As I write this, the coronavirus is running roughshod over about two-thirds of the nation, including Montana, where hospitals in a dozen modestly-sized cities are scattered over the land area of Japan. At the Billings Clinic, which serves an enormous swath of Montana (God bless you and your coworkers, Deb), the ICU there has been at 150 percent capacity for weeks, and doctors are scrambling to open a new “viral triage unit,” which sounds awful. When the Stewart kids wanted to see Mom and Dad — both on ventilators at the clinic — they had to mask up and wave at them through glass. Go ahead, read their story. I’ll wait here.

    I'm all for TV as escapism, and am a firm believer in artistic license. I can live with ABC branding Montana as a place where psychos prowl the highways, preying on visitors from out of state. But it’s incomprehensible to me that with COVID blazing across the country, ABC would choose to set a show in the pandemic with nary a safety measure in sight. For the record, Montana is not an especially COVID-denying state; perhaps ABC has it confused with North Dakota. Montana’s governor bragged this summer that “people wear face coverings all the time” in his state (of course some people don’t, but certainly not all people). And you can sure as hell bet that at any detective agency in the capital city, everyone would be masking. Isn't this the same industry that eschews smoking on-screen, makes actors buckle up in the car, and slaps content warnings on so many of its shows? Where is the political correctness when it might actually be helpful?

    This goes beyond continuity error. You don’t just casually drop in a mention of something that’s killed almost a quarter-million Americans and hasn’t been stopped. This is the kind of decision that gets made by a show's producers in consultation with the network suits — probably over a Zoom call, or maybe an outdoor meeting where everyone wore masks and sat six feet apart. And the outcome was this: Yes, Big Sky will take place in the age of COVID but, no, one one in the show will do anything that would help stop the spread of COVID. Insane, right? Ah, but you’re not thinking like the bean-counters. What if Big Sky becomes a hit, they say? What if we want it to stream on Hulu in a couple of years? We wouldn’t want to remind viewers that 2020 happened, would we? And that’s how a bunch of Hollywood actors who have their groceries Instacarted and wear face masks to the drive-thru can wind up looking like COVID deniers on a show set during the pandemic.

    If that was the thinking behind this appalling decision, then all I can say is, shame on you for choosing residuals over social responsibility. Big Sky has promise. But c’mon, people, put a mask on it.

    Big Sky premieres November 17 at 10:00 PM ET on ABC.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Big Sky, ABC, David E. Kelley, Katheryn Winnick, Kylie Bunbury, Coronavirus