Pilot Script Review of The Big Sky
Hit maker David E. Kelley, the creative force behind shows like Picket Fences, Chicago Hope and Ally McBeal, once said he thought he would never go back to broadcast television again. He spent several years working on projects for cable and streaming, including Amazon's Goliath, Audience Network's Mr Mercedes and HBO's Big Little Lies and upcoming The Undoing. Then he collaborated on an adaptation of The Lincoln Lawyer for CBS which scored a straight-to-series order, and now he's back as the creator and executive producer on an ambitious new project based on The Highway, the first book in C.J. Box’s Cassie Dewell series of novels. A+E Studios acquired the rights about two years ago, with Kelly first writing a spec script for Epix. While the project did not move forward at the premium network, he reworked The Big Sky for ABC, scoring another straight-to-series commitment.
The Cassie Dewell book series includes four novels published to date: The Highway (2013), Badlands (2015), Paradise Valley (2017) and The Bitterroots (2019). The show could very much use one book per season, keeping the central character and moving things around her, as a crime anthology series.
WRITTEN BY: David E. Kelley
DRAFT DATE: Writer's Draft 1/23/2020
PAGE COUNT: 60 pages
SCRIPT SYNOPSIS: Fade in on the snow-capped rocky mountains of Colorado. We settle on the small town of Granby, about 100 miles north of Denver. In a residential neighborhood with upper-middle-class homes, we enter the Sullivan's house, where DANIELLE SULLIVAN (18), her sister GRACE (16) and mother JOANIE (40s) are fighting over breakfast. Danielle is planning to go on a long road trip to see her boyfriend JUSTIN (18) in Montana, but Joanie doesn't want her to go alone and insists that she bring her younger sister with her. Meanwhile, in Yellowstone, we meet trooper RICK LEGARSKI (50s), who helps a poor man whose car is stuck in mud. Legarski cracks some jokes; he's very happy to get the chance to talk to someone. This time of the year, the region is deserted. Not far from there, in downtown Helena, a Gold Rush town, we settle on a storefront business: "Hoyt and Dewell, private investigators". A Ford Bronco parks in front, and police officer JENNY HOYT (40s) storms in. She's there to see CASSIE DEWELL (20s) and ends up fighting with her -- first verbally and later physically -- over not just policework, but Jenny’s ex-husband and Cassie’s P.I. partner and current lover, CODY HOYT (40s). Meanwhile, brash office manager DENISE BRISBANE (50s), tries (and fails) to keep the peace.
Not far from there, in a small unloved house, a truck driver named RONALD PERGMAN (33) tells his wife Helen he's going back out on the road. She asks him to sit down; she's concerned about his solitary behavior. Something does appear to be off him, and their discussion quickly escalates into an argument. We jump to the two sisters, en route to Colorado. Danielle is driving a Ford Focus, while Grace rides shotgun. They're mostly talking about her boyfriend Justin, who we come to understand Jenny and Cody's teenage son. They're in love and he needs her. Back to Ronald, now in a truck stop in Montana. who's being seduced by JERRIE, an androgynous teen prostitute who's dressed in drag. Ronald says he would like them to go on a date, and Jerrie kisses him. Suddenly, Ronald produces a stun gun, and plunges the twin prongs into her neck. He's zapping her, and he does it again until she starts to convulse. She dies, just like that. Hours later, Justin calls his dad. He can't reach Danielle. She isn't answering her phone and she should have been there hours ago. He convinces his father to investigate. As Cody and Cassie make their way to the location on the highway where the girls disappeared, they come to realize that the Sullivan sisters aren't the first ones to disappear from that place...
COMMENTS: Every once in a while, a project lands on a broadcast network that feels totally out of place. ABC has a history with these, going all the way back to Twin Peaks, and continuing with the excellent American Crime and the less convincing Ten Days in the Valley. Now we have The Big Sky, a somewhat deceiving title for a show with such a gritty and gloomy pilot script. As is, it doesn't seem like ABC could seriously consider airing it before 10pm. The majestic views of Colorado clash with the dark, creepy atmosphere of scenes where people are literally massacred. An offbeat psychological thriller mixed with a neo-western crime drama, few writers would be capable of balancing the two with nuance, but David E. Kelley is one of them.
The script definitely does not play by traditional broadcast rules. The way the story unfolds is unpredictable, and while I wouldn't describe it as slow, it takes the necessary time to introduce the numerous characters properly. It really takes the whole pilot to put everything in place so the actual investigation can start. I may be mistaken but it seems like it could turn out being a female-fueled crime show where Cassie and Jenny reluctantly join their forces to find the missing girls, à la Unbelievable, or the female version of True Detective we never got. The plot-twist ending will definitely hook you and leave you with the impression that The Big Sky could turn out to be a great series.
One of David E. Kelley's great talents is writing unique, complex, sometimes eccentric characters who are always endearing, even when they're irritating. Since The Big Sky is based on a book series, he didn't really create them in this case, but most totally belong in his universe. They have big personalities and they're a little off-kilter, which is a breath of fresh air in a broadcast world where so many characters tend to look and feel the same. Cassie Dewell (played by the excellent Kylie Bunbury) is an ex-rodeo rider turned private detective, an home-grown Montana pretty girl we'd follow anywhere. Jenny Hoyt (played by another excellent actress, Vikings' Katheryn Winnick) is a cynical, tough ex-cop, a rugged beauty who doesn't take no for an answer and who's not afraid of trouble. And Denise Brisbane (portrayed by Kelley's sister-in-law Dedee Pfeiffer) is part psychologist, part Den Mother, and always the biggest presence in the room. You wouldn't mess with her.
As for the men in the story, Cody Hoyt (played by Ryan Phillippe) is a well-meaning ex-cop turned private investigator. He's Montana tough and has a few demons. Rick Legarski (played by the great John Carroll Lynch) is a grizzled good-ole-boy Montana state trooper who seems dedicated to his police work and the vast community he protects, yet there is more to this misunderstood man than meets the eye... Finally, there's Ronald Pergman (portrayed by Chicago PD's Brian Geraghty), a blue-collar long-haul trucker with a disturbing dark side who becomes the subject of the investigation for very good reasons. I won't delve into the teenage characters as they're not fully developed at this point. They're not bland, just mostly absent from the pilot.
FINAL RECOMMENDATION: Gritty and dark, The Big Sky is a dramatic crime thriller with a lot of potential, boasting a strong cast and a pilot that will absolutely leave viewers wanting more. It's writer and producer David E. Kelley at his best and hopefully it's a winning return to broadcast for him. It's unlike anything else currently on ABC (or anywhere else on broadcast television), but it feels like a bet worth taking.
OVERALL PROJECT SCORE:
[ ] PASS
[ ] CONSIDER
BEST FIT: Sundays at 9 or (more likely) 10.