Desperate times call for a good, kitschy network thriller. If only ABC’s Big Sky were any good. The David E. Kelley-created series, based on the books by C.J. Box, looks promising on paper: It stars Katheryn Winnick and the great Kylie Bunbury as an ex-cop and a private detective, respectively, and Ryan Phillippe as the object of both of their affections, a man whose most defining personality trait seems to be “lives in a log cabin.” The trio have to set aside their love triangle and get to crime solvin’ when two teenage sisters (Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn) vanish on a remote Montana highway. The story has all the makings of a soapy indulgence.
And yet Big Sky, which premiered Tuesday, completely wastes the considerable charm at its disposal, mostly by making the most sexist storytelling choices possible at every turn. The show leans hard on overdone stereotypes: the creep with mommy issues, the nagging menopausal wife. The big picture of the series, both its potential and its failures, starts to become clear early in the premiere, when Jenny (Winnick) and Cassie (Bunbury) get into a bar fight over Cody (Phillippe), who is both Cassie’s work partner and Jenny’s estranged husband. Two women solving a mystery while absolutely hating each other would be so much more fun if they weren’t fighting over a man.
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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.
Despite a likable cast, Big Sky is only invested in its characters when they serve its plot twists. The premiere is at its best in the harrowing lead-up to the sisters’ kidnapping, building a sense of off-kilter dread as their road trip goes dangerously south. The show also, wisely, uses the girls to make the point that two pretty, privileged, white, cisgender teenagers get attention that plenty of abducted women do not. Cassie, Jenny, and Cody uncover a pattern of abductions in the area, mostly at truck stops, targeting women who are less likely to make headlines. One of these victims is Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel), a transfeminine nonbinary artist. Per The Advocate, Keitel is the first nonbinary series regular in a leading role on primetime TV. But oh, does Big Sky ever squander that opportunity.
Keitel brings real depth and sweetness to the role, but Jerrie’s story is a mess of transphobic stereotypes. She’s both a sex worker and a victim of violent crimes. Once she winds up trapped with the teenage girls, one of them misgenders her and asks about her genitals. And she’s forced to bargain for her life by revealing her naked body to her captor. What should be a groundbreaking role is, at least in the two episodes made available for review, off to a damaging and degrading start.
Of course, it’s easy to assume that a lot of this casual sexism will be subverted by the end. The victims will likely turn the tables; the sisters and Jerrie will bond; Cassie and Jenny will move past their feud over Cody and find common ground. It might even be educational for a certain kind of network viewer. But I would just like to make this clear right now: I don’t think it will be enough. To the extent that Big Sky might eventually offer vindication — might even aim for the same kind of catharsis in the first season finale of Kelley’s Big Little Lies — it will be hollowed out by the way the show chose to get there. I’m tired of TV’s “have your cake and eat it too” approach to violence against women, which milks sexism, racism, and transphobia for entertainment value and pretends that arresting someone in the end makes it OK.
Packed into such a middlebrow show, all of these tropes have the effect of making Big Sky an odd combination of infuriating and boring. John Carroll Lynch does inject some genuinely unsettling energy into the story as a wild-eyed state trooper who calls his wife (Brooke Smith) “Mother.” But for the most part, the series hits all the beats of a typical small-town cop show. And I haven’t even touched on the baffling decision to set the show in “pandemic times” without altering the characters’ lives in any way. Big Sky doesn’t even do a good job at being escapist. Skip this one and just follow Montana’s national parks on Instagram.
TV Guide rating: 1.5/5
Big Sky airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on ABC and is available to stream on ABC.com.