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'Big Sky' review: Provocative drama from David E. Kelley

John Carroll Lynch (l) and Ryan Phillippe in

John Carroll Lynch (l) and Ryan Phillippe in ABC's "Big Sky." Credit: ABC/Darko Sikman

SERIES "Big Sky"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT A pair of young women, Danielle Sullivan (Natalie Alyn Lind) and her younger sister Grace (Jade Pettyjohn) are headed out to Helena, Montana, when they run into car trouble near Yellowstone. Without giving anything away, this does not end well for them, nor for a local prostitute, Jerrie Kennedy (Manorville native Jesse James Keitel). When they don't turn up, some local private detectives swing into action — Cody Hoyt (Ryan Phillippe), his ex, Jenny (Katheryn Winnick, "Vikings") and Cassie Dewell (Kylie Bunbury, "When They See Us") — and get an assist from Sheriff Legarski (John Carroll Lynch, "American Horror Story"). This is based on the novels of western mystery writer C.J. Box.

MY SAY As your immediate warning, or at least your caveat emptor, "Big Sky" involves graphic violence against women, violence against a trans person, and violence between women. In the context of a typical commercial network show, those elements are usually the big flashing neon signs up over the circus tent: Come on y'all! Watch some bad stuff happen to the ladies!

Usually that's how it goes, and maybe how it'll eventually go here, except that "Big Sky'' is not quite typical. Foremost, this is a David E. Kelley ("Big Little Lies," "Ally McBeal") production (he wrote and created), and those always come with their own set of expectations, which are often good ones. Sure, he's had a couple of stinkers over the years, but few and very far between. This is not one of those. He is also one of TV's rare male superscribes who "writes'' female protagonists particularly well. They have complicated back stories and lives, made more complicated by the idiot men in those lives. They also have, to use the currently fashionable word, "agency." They're powerful, and powerful enough to be the leads.

They sure are here.

"Big Sky'' unfolds under that big sky, where the mountains stretch on forever and where human affairs, in sharp contrast, are either pedestrian or soiled and grubby. There's a pandemic raging but people don't wear masks; why bother? Not a potential super-spreader event in sight. They eat at the neighborhood greasy spoon ("you kill it we grill it") which is literally called the Dirty Spoon. The local constabulary seems nice enough — weird but at least not a headbanger. For kicks, everyone gets drunk.

Kelley and "Big Sky" do a plausible job of tricking or rather lulling us into expectations that most assuredly will not be met. They do this for all the standard reasons (ratings) but you'll also come around to the realization that they're bored with network TV, with its ossified beats and hooks and cons which viewers know all too well anyway.

Instead, this is a trickster novel in 10 parts, with a beginning, middle and end. Curveballs abound. The neon lights are flashing. The pages are turning. Where will this end up? Who knows, but with this excellent cast, sharp writing, and evocative locale, "Big Sky" does an even better job of making us want to know.

BOTTOM LINE Provocative page-turner.

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