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Montanans haven’t had the best year. You add up the pandemic, the collapsed economy, the bitterly partisan election, the influx in late-season tourism and you get a state full of people who would love a good distraction.

In that light, ABC’s new primetime drama “Big Sky” feels like a godsend. Because what do Montanans love more than anything else? Making fun of out-of-staters who don’t understand Montana. We don’t have an NFL team, so this is the next best thing.

Ridiculing this mess should be the first communal joy we Montanans have gotten this year, a chance to call each other up and laugh about how the Hollyweird bigwigs have no idea what I-90 outside of Big Timber looks like.

But the show is a heck of a lot less fun than that, and it’s dangerously exploitative and insensitive toward the actual criminal trends that plague this state.

“Big Sky” is predictable procedural soapy schlock. The setup is silly and bland, sort of like a drunk guy trying to recount the plot of “Twin Peaks.” It turns Helena into some sort of quirky small town, filled with crooked State Highway Patrolman Rick Legarski (John Carroll Lynch) and a trio of ex-cops turned private detectives (Katheryn Winnick, Ryan Phillippe, Kylie Bunbury).

Things go into disarray when two sisters, Danielle and Grace Sullivan (Natalie Alyn Lind and Jade Pettyjohn), are kidnapped by Ronald Pergman (Brian Geraghty), a trucker who inexplicably wears a suit and tie and has already abducted one sex worker by the time he makes it across state lines.

That’s about it for the first episode, but the series is based on C. J. Box’s book “The Highway.” So if you’d like to read ahead, you can find Box’s work in every store that caters to tourists in the state.

There are pieces here that could be a campy good time, with backstabbing locals and big bad guys hulking in the background. But “Big Sky’s” fatal flaw is that it never portrays anything like the real Montana, which is far more interesting and meaningful than anything the “Big Sky” writers’ room could think of.

Helena is a fascinating town. It’s a ghost town that somehow never died, complete with a ramshackle mining camp layout. But the fictionalized version is a bland tourist town. They filmed in Vancouver, but these personality-less streets could be found anywhere from Jackson Hole to Ketchikan.

There are plenty of aesthetic, silly differences like that. The show opens with a glamour shot of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, which is in Wyoming. The geography is insane, focusing on the residents of Helena rallying to solve a crime committed in Paradise Valley, a couple hundred miles and several jurisdictions away. The big action sequence takes place in Yankee Jim Canyon, which in the show is depicted as a swamp, complete with moss covered deciduous trees (though they somehow got it right that Yankee Jim is the only spot on US-89 where you lose reliable cell service).

But there are much darker, more sinister mistakes in here. For starters, there’s the general way “Big Sky” treats women. This show is getting off on the pain and distress it’s putting these women through. “Big Sky” exists not to tell a story, but to show a close up of a woman’s face as she imagines the bad things that are about to happen to her.

And that’s not even the worst of it. After hearing the news that the Sullivan sisters have gone missing, Trooper Legarski remarks that, “We’ve had the occasional young female vanish around here.” He suggests that there is a larger conspiracy afoot.

Except there is a real problem with females vanishing in Montana. They’re just not the ones portrayed on “Big Sky.” All the victims in the show are white, but Montana has a well-documented and long history of missing and murdered Indigenous women. The Billings Gazette, the state’s largest paper, has covered the crisis extensively, and even has a page on its website devoted to cases. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while Native Americans account for 6.7% of the Montana population, they comprise, on average, 26% of our missing persons cases.

A show set in Montana about an abduction could help raise awareness. Instead, “Big Sky” insists on being the height of tastelessness. A silly soap opera about a fictional rash of white women getting kidnapped pulls attention away from very real problems and puts it onto something fictional. It’s yet another example of American culture minimizing and erasing Indigenous voices.

The Great Falls Tribune reported last week that Montana tribal organizations wrote a letter to ABC about the erasure of Indigenous women. Maybe the network will listen. But with the quality on display in “Big Sky,” I doubt the show will stick around long enough for it to matter.

Jake Iverson is a freelance writer based in Butte. He previously wrote for the Chronicle's arts and culture section, and can be reached at jakeiverson57@gmail.com.

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