Large Sky Overview: A proficient forged is wasted in a jumble of dangerous stereotypes
Desperate times call for a good, cheesy network thriller. If only ABC’s Big Sky were good. The series created by David E. Kelley and based on the books by CJ Box looks promising on paper: It shows Katheryn Winnick and the great Kylie Bunbury as ex-cop and private detective and Ryan Phillippe as the object of both affections, a man whose most distinctive personality trait seems to be “lives in a log cabin”. The trio must put their love triangle aside and go on a crime hunt when two teenage sisters (Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn) disappear on a remote Montana highway. History has all the requirements for soapy pleasure.
And yet, Big Sky, which premiered Tuesday, is completely wasting the considerable charm at its disposal, making the most sexist storytelling decisions at every turn. The show relies heavily on exaggerated stereotypes: crawling with mom problems, the nagging woman going through menopause. The bigger picture of the series, both its potential and its failures, becomes clear at the start of 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 puzzle and hating each other would be so much more fun if they weren’t arguing over a man.
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Big Sky is a type of show that thinks it is commenting on sexism if it really just indulges in it. It seems like it wants to investigate the epidemic of violence against women in America, and maybe even examine the intersections that put some women at higher risk. But his approach is so blatant and exploitative that it’s hard to believe that the show really matters. When the series draws attention to the fact that there aren’t a lot of black women in Montana, it’s not by centering Cassie’s experiences, but by having a white man repeatedly objectify them. Bunbury, magnetic as ever, gives Cassie the power she can, but seeing her hold her own in the face of racism and sexism is a cruel substitute for actual characterization.
Despite a sympathetic cast, Big Sky is only invested in his characters if they serve his plot changes. The premiere is best in the harrowing preparation for the sisters’ kidnapping, which creates a sense of unusual fear when their road trip leads dangerously south. The show also uses the girls wisely to point out that two beautiful, privileged, white cisgender teenagers are getting the attention that many abducted women don’t. Cassie, Jenny, and Cody uncover a pattern of kidnappings in the area, mostly at roadhouses that target women who make less headlines. One of these victims is Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel), a transfeminine non-binary artist. According to The Advocate, Keitel is the first non-binary series to feature regularly on primetime television. But oh, does Big Sky ever miss this opportunity?
Keitel brings real depth and sweetness to the role, but Jerrie’s story is a mess of transphobic stereotypes. She is both a sex worker and a victim of violent crime. Once trapped with the teenage girls, one of them gets her wrong and asks about her genitals. And she is forced to negotiate for her life by revealing her naked body to her kidnapper. What should be a groundbreaking role, at least in the two episodes made available for review, is a damaging and degrading start.
Of course, it’s easy to assume that much of that occasional sexism will end up being undermined. The victims will likely turn the tables; the sisters and Jerrie will join; Cassie and Jenny will get around their feud over Cody and find common ground. It might even be educational to a certain type of network viewer. But I just want to make this clear now: I don’t think it will be enough. To the extent that Big Sky may offer a justification – even aiming for the same kind of catharsis in the first season finale of Kelley’s Big Little Lies – that is undermined by the way the show chose to do it. I’m tired of television cracking down on violence against women milking sexism, racism and transphobia for entertainment reasons and pretending that in the end it is okay to arrest someone.
All of those tropes packed into such a mid-brow show make Big Sky an odd combination of anger and boredom. John Carroll Lynch brings some truly unsettling energy to the story as the wild-eyed soldier 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 play the show during “pandemic times” without changing the characters’ lives in any way. Big Sky doesn’t even do a good job as an 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 can be streamed on ABC.com.