David E. Kelley returns to network TV with ‘Big Sky’

Rick's Reviews

Kathryn Winnick stars in the new ABC drama “Big Sky.” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

(KGET) — There was a time when David E. Kelley was a major contributor of programming for the networks with series such as “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Practice” and “Boston Public.” In recent years, Kelley moved away from the networks and created programming like “Big Little Lies” and “Mr. Mercedes” for cable channels where there were less constrictions on time, content and language.

Kelley has returned to the confines of network television with the new ABC drama “Big Sky.” The series – scheduled to launch at 10 p.m. Nov. 17 – looks at mysterious happenings unfolding in the backcountry of Montana. It is based on the C.J. Box 2013 book “The Highway.”

Kelley was not overly anxious to return to the strict guidelines of network television after the freedoms he found with cable. His main concern was having to build in several breaks in the story for the airing of commercials.

“But when we set forth with ABC, they were really frisky to break their own mold.  And to present storytelling to the audience that would be more in line with cable or streaming,” Kelley says. “I think this show lends itself to be a great binging show.  It would work very well on streaming.  But at the end of the day, ABC came to us, declared their passion for telling the story the way we wanted to tell it, and here we are. 

“The biggest challenge for me is commercials.  I still hate them.  I know the audience fast‑forwards through them, so that’s better.  But it still calls upon them to pick up their remote and break a wall, if you will. “

The series opens with nightmarish events surrounding two sisters who make the major mistake of getting on the bad side of a truck driver on a remote part of the highway. What happens triggers an investigation by private detectives Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe) and Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury) plus Hoyt’s estranged wife and ex-cop, Jenny Hoyt (Katheryn Winnick) to search for the sisters. They soon discover their search is just part of a bigger mystery.

Elements of the mystery will be revealed each week especially in the closing moments of each episode. Kelley always has written shows with the kind of cliff‑hangers that make an audience want to return for the next episode.

The big difference with ‘Big Sky” will be the motivation of what’s happening. Most of his previous shows have focused on social or political issues.

“We’ll have some of those too.  But the fundamental question that’s going to be asked in this series, and we want our audience asking it, is what’s going to happen next?  It goes back to it being a thriller,” Kelley says. “Be it the act break or the episode breaks, we definitely want to compel the audience to come back.”

Winnick – who is best known for her work on “Vikings”- supports what Kelley is saying by explaining how shocked and surprised the cast members were when they read the scripts.

Because the series began filming during the pandemic, the actors could only stay in touch via the Internet before the production. It was the 14 days they spent quarantined in Canada that gave them the opportunity to share their feelings about the writing.

Winnick says, “As the scripts keep pouring in, we’ve got five already.  We’re all like, ‘Holy Smokes.  Did you read that?  Do you know what’s happening?’  Because it’s just we’re all on the edge of our seats, kind of just turning our pages.

“I think that the audience is going to be so ecstatic and they’re going to feel the same ways as they binge watch or as they come back week to week for this, because there’s so many unexpected turns and twists, and these characters are so rich and dynamic that I’m super excited about it.” 

Joining Winnick in her excitement for “Big Sky” are: Brian Geraghty as Ronald Pergman; Dedee Pfeiffer as Denise Brisbane; Natalie Alyn Lind as Danielle Sullivan; Jade Pettyjohn as Grace Sullivan; Jesse James Keitel as Jerrie; Valerie Mahaffey as Helen Pergman; and John Carroll Lynch as Rick Legarski.

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