"After watching two episodes of ABC's new drama Big Sky, from creator David E. Kelley, I've narrowed my responses down to a pair of possibilities: The first is that despite a strong creative team and a cast of TV favorites, Big Sky is a very bad show," says Daniel Fienberg. "It's tawdry and manipulative, basically ABC's version of Criminal Minds. And I'm fully aware lots of folks loved Criminal Minds. The second is that the pilot for Big Sky is a feint, a misdirect, a near-parody of tawdry and manipulative shows like Criminal Minds and the violence against women that fuels them. The second episode, then, is much closer to the actual show that Kelley and company want to be making. It unfortunately happens that the second episode isn't very good, either. But it at least opens the door to the interpretation that a more intellectually curious show is unfolding. My instinct, for what it's worth, is that the second possibility is the correct one, but either way my recommendation is the same: Don't watch the first episode of Big Sky on Tuesday night. If you're intrigued by Big Sky, wait a week and binge the first two episodes, which is really how ABC should have premiered the show anyway. Kelley has been working on cable for so long that he may think viewer buy-in automatically comes multiple episodes at a time. I would argue, on the contrary, that viewers are every bit as likely to check out of Big Sky within 20 minutes as they are to get to the twist ending and have the patience to wait seven days to see what the real show is. It's a lot to ask for what is, in my most generous estimation, a wobbly payoff thus far."
Big Sky is not Prestige TV, but it's a lot of fun: "ABC is marketing Big Sky, which premieres on Nov. 17, as precisely that: a polished, sophisticated, boundary-pushing prestige thriller of the kind that major networks almost never make anymore," says Judy Berman. "Adapted from a series of novels by C.J. Box, it’s a lightning-paced crime story from the sought-after creator David E. Kelley, who was known for broadcast blockbusters like Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal before he was known for Big Little Lies. And it’s not shy about inviting comparisons to classics. As its title suggests, the show is set in Montana. It opens with a montage of natural beauty straight out of the Twin Peaks (which had its original two-season run on ABC) credits sequence—snow-capped mountains, dramatic waterfalls, evergreen forests—before opening in the familiar environs of a frozen-in-time diner called the Dirty Spoon. The show doesn’t come close to equaling David Lynch’s sui generis philosophical murder soap. (To be fair, neither does 99.999% of content released by cable channels or streaming services.) It’s far more visceral than cerebral. And for all its crisp, immersive cinematography and timely themes, it still feels more like a network potboiler than a groundbreaking work of art. All you can really ask of this kind of series is that it’s entertaining, and in that respect Big Sky delivers."
Big Sky is David E. Kelley light: "It’s glossy, plot-driven, and (at least in the first two episodes made available to critics out of ten total) not wildly daring in its execution," says Jen Chaney. "Compared to Kelley’s more recent high-profile television offerings — like Big Little Lies and The Undoing, both on HBO — Big Sky seems less sophisticated and less nuanced. That said, there is a high likelihood that viewers will get hooked on this drama, thanks especially to the first episode’s shocker of an ending, which sparks an immediate desire to watch the second. (Sorry, kids, this is ABC and you have to wait a week between installments.) With a show that contains so many ongoing puzzles and questions about the motives of its characters, it’s harder than usual to gauge how good it is based on only two episodes."
Early on, Big Sky is barely an effective procedural: "Whether Big Sky is trying to balance too many stories in network-friendly 43-minute episodes or the show’s source material is simply not that original (it’s based on C.J. Box’s 2013 novel, The Highway), the drama has no room for nuance and little sensitivity toward its subjects," says Ben Travers. "These first two episodes check off box after expected box, whether it’s the overused explanation for Ronald’s psychological problems or the routine investigation tactics employed by our leads. Even the 'big twist' at the end of the pilot is pulled from a long-outdated prestige TV playbook. Maybe it would have been shocking 10 years ago, but today, it’s just disappointing. Big Sky wants viewers to believe it’s something new, something different, something great. After two hours, all those claims just seem like hot air, and worse still, it’s not even a good procedural."
Big Sky is a well-paced multiple cliffhanger with bursts of violence as well as some exquisitely executed emotional sequences: "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," says Richard Roeper. Big Sky, he says "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."
Big Sky wastes a promising cast in a mess of harmful stereotypes: The ABC drama "completely wastes the considerable charm at its disposal, mostly by making the most sexist storytelling choices possible at every turn," says Kelly Connolly. "The show leans hard on overdone stereotypes: the creep with mommy issues, the nagging menopausal wife...Big Sky is the sort of show that thinks it's commenting on sexism when it's really just reveling in it. It seems like it wants to investigate the epidemic of violence against women in America, and maybe even to explore the intersectional issues that put some women at greater risk. But its approach is so crass and exploitative that it's hard to believe the show really cares. When the series calls attention to the fact that there aren't many Black women in Montana, it does so not by centering Cassie's experiences but by having a white man repeatedly objectify her. Bunbury, magnetic as always, gives Cassie all the strength she can, but watching her hold her own in the face of racism and sexism is a cruel substitute for actual characterization."
Big Sky ends up feeling like less of a twist on a TV mystery than an overwrought indulgence of the genre’s most basic instincts: "The stakes couldn’t be higher, but Big Sky nonetheless has trouble making its storylines feel as urgent as they truly are because its characters rarely feel as human as they need to in order for them to land," says Caroline Framke, adding: "To say much more about what the show’s actually about would get into the kinds of secret specifics that Big Sky guards with palpable excitement, so they won’t get spoiled here. Some are obvious; others, genuinely surprising. And yet, for all the big swings it takes, Big Sky still won’t be much of a shock to the system for anyone even remotely familiar with the tropes it tackles. Not even decamping to Montana can set this story apart from the ones we’ve seen a million times before.'"
David E. Kelley continues his cold streak with Big Sky: The ABC drama leans away from its central characters and wallows in exploitation, says Alan Sepinwall. It also represents a bizarre choice for Kelley's return to broadcast television. "TV in general, and network TV in particular, is a more interesting place whenever David E. Kelley is making TV shows — even if those shows aren’t very good," says Sepinwall. "But between Big Little Lies Season Two, The Undoing, and now Big Sky, he’s on an extended cold streak. His has been a great if fundamentally uneven career, mixing populist hits with more minor shows, such as Girls Club and The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire (where Lynch was one of the leads), that come and go with little fanfare. Big Sky unfortunately seems like one of the latter. Yet that first season of BLL, arriving in close proximity to Goliath and Mr. Mercedes, suggested there was still life in Kelley’s keyboard. Hopefully, his next projects find it again."
Unlike Kelley's other recent series, Big Sky is an unadorned crime thriller that goes straight for the throat: "Shots are fired, Tasers are zapped, tables are turned, genders are bent, and stomachs are twisted," says Glenn Garvin. "With echoes of Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, and the old Steven Spielberg film Duel, Big Sky is a wild, fast and contorted ride that leaves its audience gasping—sometimes for breath, sometimes to control gag reflexes. For all the action, it's the writing that makes Big Sky sing. Kelley has taken a bunch of hopelessly cliched characters and made them sing."
How ABC lured David E. Kelley back to broadcast TV: "David E. Kelley knows how to create a hit broadcast show and in particular, a hit ABC show," says ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke. "I chased the script, which had all the high marks of what David does well: weave a really innovative, compelling tale that's told through the prism of really strong women. This particular story takes a minute to unfold, which is what is so beguiling. It’s not completely serialized (but) there are satisfying stories in every episode. He is telling the story in these mini arcs, in which you ultimately see our female leads triumph over their oppressors." Meanwhile, Kelley says of his vow in 2016 not to return to network TV: "I suggested that I was not inclined to go back to broadcast and I’m still not inclined to go back to broadcast. I'm still nervous about broadcast. I hate the commercial part of it, the eight-minute acts; it’s just not fun. This is just really project-driven. Karey has been unflinching in the support of the tone of the series, which is more cable-esque or streaming-esque than broadcast."
Kelley previously said he wouldn't do serial killer shows, so why adapt Big Sky?: "I thought Dexter was brilliant," he says. "And I loved The Sopranos — Tony Soprano killed people. If it’s a series where you’re going to be spending a long time with these people, they can become very real in your head. To live in that world with those people, it helps for our own survival to like them, if not love them. And I never saw myself as a person who could live inside the head of that kind of depravity. If you look at the evolution or metamorphosis of Ronald Pergram, I think he’s probably a bit more vulnerable in the television version. He was riveting in the book, scary even, but I think we unearthed a little more of his humanity. He’s not all evil. If we’re successful, the audience will be both afraid of Ronald but also feel for him. And John Carroll Lynch is so good at channeling State Trooper Rick Legarski that it’s both amusing and horrifying at the same time."