If we didn’t already have a disturbing picture of life, angst and anger in the American heartland, gleaned from political events, there’s an even darker fictional portrait arriving Tuesday. And if you’ve given up on conventional TV, don’t. This doozy is delivered old-school, in weekly episodes on network television.
Big Sky (starts Tuesday, ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.) might make you think of many things. Maybe the first season of Twin Peaks (also delivered by ABC in the long-ago), or maybe the hard-boiled noir nihilism in the fiction of writer Jim Thompson. Mostly it will make you think that Montana is a place populated by grotesques and a few decent souls. Certainly, it will chill you and it’s addictive enough to make you want to come back week after week for its 10-episode run.
The gist is this: Teen sisters Danielle (Natalie Alyn Lind) and Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) are driving from Colorado to Montana to visit Danielle’s boyfriend. They have car trouble in the middle of nowhere and disappear. The audience knows exactly what has happened to them. The audience also knows the territory they were heading into, and the kind of people who live there. Not a nice bunch, you could say as an understatement.
There’s Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe), an ex-cop now working as a private investigator. Cody has separated from his wife, Jenny (Katheryn Winnick), and blithely begun an affair with Jenny’s best friend, Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury, When They See Us). Jenny is angry and dukes it out with Cassie. Literally. As it happens Jenny is related to the boyfriend that those teen girls were planning to visit.
Meanwhile, travelling the same roads as those sisters is trucker Ronald Pergman (Brian Geraghty), a 38-year-old who lives with his mother, Helen (Valerie Mahaffey), and within a minute of meeting them, you’re thinking about Norman Bates and his mom. In the second episode, when Ronald arrives home after a shift, Mom says, “Why don’t you go and masturbate yourself while I fix us some food.”
Also rambling the roads is Montana State Trooper Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch). The series actually belongs to Legarski and the actor (familiar as a character actor in many movies and multiple seasons of American Horror Story). Legarski is both affable and menacing, a figure David Lynch would be proud to create. (Big Sky is based on the Cassie Dewell crime novels by C.J. Box.)
In an early scene, Legarski helps a stranded driver out of the Montana mud with a spiel that is so loaded with both lascivious meaning and contempt, it is breathtaking. And you can tell John Carroll Lynch is savouring every line of the disturbingly wicked dialogue here.
What ensues has multiple and shocking twists in a tale that is partly about women as objects to be traded, but mainly about all the evil that lurks under the big, blue, beautiful Montana sky. (It was filmed in British Columbia, actually.) It is also contemporary. There is mention of the pandemic shutting down small bars and truck-stops, but nobody wears a mask or does social distancing. And Rick Legarski has the air of a Trump supporter, sneering at distant San Francisco as a “sanctuary city.”
It is drenched in toxic masculinity and swept along by a formidable soundtrack of country music classics. Sexism and racism pervade it but in a way that’s loopy, and thereby more ominous. At times this world seems so primitive, you might be reading a new, loose American translation of Beowulf.
The series is written for TV by David E. Kelley, who was once a prince of network TV (Chicago Hope, The Practice, Ally McBeal) but has recently concentrated on premium cable series, adapting Big Little Lies and HBO’s current drama The Undoing. Kelly’s reputation for writing strong, nuanced female characters precedes him and here it is both evident and proven. At first you could think Big Sky is dipping into the pool of TV crime dramas in which women are routinely the victims of graphic violence, for titillation, but the story as it unfolds undercuts that leitmotif with a precision and oomph that’s startling.
Everything about Big Sky is startling: the pace and look of it and the strange balancing of violence with poignancy, deeply dark humour and visual beauty. It’s about a deeply American malady. Big Sky is smart, lurid, disturbing and vastly entertaining, as the best of conventional TV used to be.
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter. Sign up today.