David E. Kelley is finally back where he started – writing and producing for a broadcast network.
He did that for a quarter-century – from “L.A. Law” and “Chicago Hope” to “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Public.” He was the master at crafting intelligent and entertaining TV over 42-minute stretches, plus commercials.
And then he left – until now. “Big Sky” (shown here, 10 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC) is Kelley’s first broadcast-network show since “Harry’s Law” ended its lone season eight years ago.
“I was not anxious to get back to the broadcast world for a lot of (reasons),” Kelley told the Television Critics Association last month. “Mainly the commercials.”
He certainly didn’t need it. Kelley has thrived in the commercial-free worlds of HBO (“Big Little Lies,” “Monday Mornings,” the current “The Undoing”) and streaming (“Goliath,” “Mr. Mercedes”).
But then the ABC people came to him. “They were really frisky to break their own mold,” Kelley said, “and to present storytelling … that would be more in line with cable or streaming.”
That means serialized stories that don’t need to be resolved at the end of an hour. It also means an emphasis on complicated characters. In this case, they’re in a novel by CJ Box.
We meet two sisters, on a lonely stretch of Montana highway. They’re played by Jade Pettyjohn and by Natalie Alyn Lind, who has been everywhere lately – “The Goldbergs” (as Dana), “Tell Me a Story” (as a scarred country-music star) and “The Gifted” (as a teen with superpowers). “Sometimes real life can be scarier than the elements that are created in the superpower Marvel world,” she said.
We also meet a lonesome truck driver (Brian Geraghty) and his disapproving mom (Valerie Mahaffey).
Soon, there’s a crisis and we meet a cop, played – as usual – by John Carroll Lynch. “I can play any kind of cop you want,” joked Lynch, still best-known as a cop’s spouse in the “Fargo” movie. “I can be a desk sergeant. I can be a detective. But this is the first time I’ve been on the highway patrol and I’m super excited about that.”
Also working the case is a private eye (Ryan Phillippe), his detective partner (Kylie Bunbury, who played the first female Major-Leaguer in “Pitch”) and his ex-wife (Katheryn Winnick, shown here, who starred in “Vikings”), an ex-cop. They provide “a crazy love triangle,” Winnick said.
There are plenty of other areas for Kelley to play with, including the notion of feeling like an outsider. Bunbury talks about “the dynamics of bening a biracial woman in a relatively white town …. In Montana, I think, it’s .01 percent of people are of color.”
Actually, it’s a tad higher. The 2010 census put the Montana population at 0.4 per cent black or African-American – about 1 in 250. Then again, her home town of Prior Lake, Minn., is only 1.5 percent. “I really do understand what it’s like to be in very white spaces.”
And everyone here feels like an outsider – including a belittled trucker, an ignored cop and two sisters on a lonely stretch of nowhere.