Since he quit his job as a lawyer to work full-time in television, David E. Kelley has had the kind of career of which dreams are made. He has been a chief creative force behind era-defining hits like L.A. Law, The Practice, and Ally McBeal. He has enough awards to fill a very large trophy case, and has written material that has helped more than 30 actors on his shows win Emmys. He has minted stars like Calista Flockhart (who wound up on the cover of Time, albeit not in the most flattering way) and been the writer of choice for pre-existing stars like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. (He’s also been married to one, Michelle Pfeiffer, since 1993.) Though his specialty is quirky legal dramas like Boston Legal, he has written across genres on the small screen and the big one, including horror (Lake Placid) and even sports comedy (Mystery, Alaska).
Kelley is at a stage in his life and work where he can more or less do what he wants. Often, his choice of project makes perfect sense, even if his choices within those projects do not. It’s not hard, for example, to understand why he would want to re-team with Kidman and HBO for The Undoing, though the miniseries feels like a relic from The Practice days. In other situations, trying to figure out his reasons for taking on a particular show can be more interesting than the show itself. Case in point: his new ABC thriller Big Sky.
Kelley is among the most acclaimed, powerful, and influential showrunners in broadcast TV history, but his shows have appeared exclusively on cable, satellite, and streaming networks ever since CBS canceled his Robin Williams comedy The Crazy Ones back in 2014. At the end of a 2016 press conference to promote his Amazon law series Goliath, a reporter asked if Kelley ever imagined himself returning to one of the traditional networks where he first made it big. “Don’t think so” was his blunt answer. When you have A-list talent wanting to work with you in places that offer fewer creative restrictions, it’s hard to go back. But in recent years, Kelley has softened that stance. He developed a Lincoln Lawyer series that CBS ultimately didn’t pick up, and tonight he returns to the home of Boston Legal with Big Sky, starring Kylie Bunbury, Katheryn Winnick, and Ryan Phillippe as private investigators looking into a string of abductions in and around Helena, Montana.
We open with Winnick’s Jenny upset to learn that best friend Cass (Bunbury) has slept with Jenny’s estranged husband Cody (Phillippe), with whom Cass runs a detective agency. The women argue and later get into a violent bar brawl, but the tension between them has to be put aside when two teenage sisters (Natalie Alyn Lind’s Danielle and Jade Pettyjohn’s Grace) who are friends of Jenny’s son go missing on the road into town. Soon, our heroes are tangled up in a human trafficking plot that involves a sociopathic long-haul trucker (Brian Geraghty’s Ronald) who lives with his mom (Valerie Mahaffey as Helen), a sketchy state trooper (John Carroll Lynch’s Rick), and a local sex worker (Jerrie, played by nonbinary actor Jesse James Keitel), plus lots and lots of shots of female kidnapping victims whimpering in fear over what’s going to happen to them.
Throughout the two episodes made available to critics, I kept wondering what Kelley saw in the C.J. Box books he’s adapting that made him want to do this show, and to return to ABC. There are echoes of other series he’s made — Helena is treated as a relatively small and remote community, like Rome from Picket Fences(*), and Mr. Mercedes had its own serial offender — but not in ways that play to his strengths. Cass and Jenny have issues with one another, and with Cody, but are for the most part well-adjusted, straightforward, good-guy types. Bunbury and Winnick continue to show the tremendous screen presence they’ve had on past series like Pitch and Vikings, respectively, but you can sense Kelley’s interest wandering away from them and towards Ronald, his mom, and Rick, as avatars of the kind of weirdness he loved to play around with during his previous stint as a broadcast creator. (Content restrictions have relaxed since then, too, so he can have Helen say things to Ronald like, “Go back to your room and masturbate while I make us some lunch.”)
(*) One puzzling decision: Like a number of network shows this fall, Kelley is sidestepping Covid-19; but he’s doing it by setting the show in a post-quarantine world, where nobody has to wear masks or socially distance, yet where characters occasionally refer to the impact the pandemic has had on life in America. Better to avoid the topic altogether than this half-hearted, distracting approach.
Maybe that’s the reason he’s come back to ABC? His more recent projects have had room for humor — Big Little Lies especially — but on the whole have felt more sober and sincere, and have tried to treat most of their central players as flesh-and-blood humans. Given the constant terror and victimization of multiple female characters here, Big Sky obviously isn’t a laugh riot; but several of its supporting characters are odd enough to seem as if they’re scratching an itch for the show’s creator. The problem is that the more Kelley scratches, the more the narrative tilts towards the most exploitative and unpleasant aspects of the story. Mr. Mercedes was about a serial killer and was adapting a series of Stephen King novels, and even that series wallowed much less in its victims’ suffering than this one does.
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. 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.