vulture investigates

So, Is There a Pandemic on Big Sky or Not?

John Carroll Lynch, maskless on Big Sky. Photo: Courtesy of ABC

Despite having just aired its fifth episode and fall finale, the ABC series Big Sky has yet to adequately answer a basic question: Is there a pandemic happening on this show?

The mystery set in Helena, Montana — or more accurately, a network-TV version of Helena, Montana — has implied since its first episode, mostly through dialogue, that the residents are dealing with COVID, or at least a COVID equivalent. But this issue is addressed so sparingly, so so so so sparingly, that it’s hard to grasp whether it’s actually legitimate or why it is necessary to the plot.

Did creator David E. Kelley and his writers feel a need to nod to the pandemic since the series has been filmed under COVID protocols during the pandemic? Or is it possible that this wishy-washy attitude toward an extremely contagious virus, the sort of thing that would probably, I don’t know, significantly affect everyone’s daily lives, is a meta commentary on the actual debate between rational Americans and, um, everyone else about whether COVID-19 is a hoax? If Big Sky were addressing this issue with more sense of purpose, I might be willing to accept the meta theory. There’s an argument to be made that watching Big Sky, an often laughable yet also punishing portrait of a society in which insecure men torture women and complain about how blue lives matter, is some sort of metaphor for our current moment. To be clear: I am not making that argument. But I am saying that there have been times when it felt like this year was standing next to our collective bedsides like John Carroll Lynch holding a hammer and debating whether to smack us with it.

But back to how this series handles its (alleged) pandemic setting. In the first scene of the first episode, the soon-to-be kidnapped Jerrie (Jesse James Keitel) is sitting at the Dirty Spoon Diner, watching a video of herself singing “Falling” while a waitress serves her coffee. When the waitress asks if the song is a bit old-fashioned for Jerrie, Jerrie  says, “In pandemic times, people want to believe. Especially in love.” Within the first minute of Big Sky, we know that there is, in fact, a pandemic happening. Which suggests that this is an important detail.

But absolutely nothing else in the scene suggests “pandemic.” Indoor dining is apparently still happening. That waitress is maybe six inches away from Jerrie, as opposed to six feet. Not a single soul in that dinner is wearing a mask. If these are pandemic times, they sure look an awful lot like regular times.

So does everything in the rest of the first episode. Characters continue to go about their business, doing regular Montana-type stuff — arguing about cheating spouses, driving into Helena as if there’s no reason to be concerned about travel restrictions, getting kidnapped by psychopaths with mommy issues — as if nothing has changed. The pandemic is referenced only one more time, when Rick Legarski (Lynch) meets detective Cody Hoyt (Ryan Philippe) at the All-In Bar and tells him that “this place shut down because of the pandemic,” in what sounds very much like a comment that was ADR-ed in during post-production.

Certainly not everyone in real-world Montana is adhering to mask-wearing, as the news makes clear. So it would be reasonable if not everyone in Big Sky Montana were wearing masks, especially a guy like Legarski, who definitely voted for Trump and probably believes there’s a secret child trafficking ring at a pizza place in D.C. (I’ve been there and there isn’t), which is ironic considering that he is directly involved in human trafficking. But there is zero evidence that anyone is even remotely concerned about the pandemic, regularly talking about the pandemic, trying to quarantine, or in touch with anyone who has gotten ill. One of the first words we hear on this show is “pandemic,” which makes it seem like Big Sky will reckon with the pandemic. And then it doesn’t! Which is weird! It doesn’t make sense! As indicated by my reckless use of exclamation points, it’s been driving me a little crazy at a time when there are (roughly) 10,865 other more substantive things to be worrying about right now!

But can you blame me when this show continues to make its pandemic problem even more problematic? In the second episode it’s not mentioned at all. In episode three, the camera purposefully pans across a bottle of hand sanitizer on the sheriff’s desk, as if we should pay attention to it, but never comments further on the virus, assuming that sanitizer shot counted as an initial comment.

In the last two episodes, the pandemic avoidance is even more egregious. When Jenny (Katheryn Winnick) goes undercover as a prostitute, a trucker invites her into his rig, but insists she lather herself up with hand sanitizer because he’s a “germaphobe.” If there’s really a pandemic in progress on this show, this would have been the perfect place for Jenny to say, “You’ve got to be careful because of the pandemic,” or even spin the scene in an ironic direction and highlight the comedy of being willing to have sex during a pandemic while simultaneously being obsessed with Purell. None of that happens.

Later, when Jenny tells Denise, the detective company assistant played by Dedee Pfeiffer, sister-in-law of one David E. Kelley, that the trucker buys hand sanitizer in bulk, the show misses another opportunity to do something with that information. “Who doesn’t these days?” is a thing that Denise could have said, for example. Instead the guy’s obsession with hand sanitizer is characterized as a weird tic as opposed to extremely normal 2020 behavior.

In the fall finale that aired on Tuesday night, there are, again, zero pandemic allusions save for one, sort of: When Ronald (Brian Geraghty), Legarski’s partner in human trafficking acquisitions, cleans up the three women they’ve kidnapped, he uses disinfectant wipes to do it. Which: were these easily acquired? Is no one buying disinfectant wipes in bulk in Helena right now, just hand sanitizer? Also, is this not a waste of precious disinfectant wipes in what is allegedly and completely nonsensically supposed to be a pandemic? Use soap and water, man!

Here’s the thing: Big Sky could have very easily existed in a non-pandemic setting. It was developed and green-lit before COVID began to seriously spread, and it would have been reasonable to decide to leave airborne illnesses out of the Big Sky universe. The Undoing, another David E. Kelley series released at the same time, but shot pre-COVID, did that and viewers had no problem with it. (They had other problems, but we’ve covered those.)

The fact that references to the pandemic were inserted into the pilot makes it seem like that information must be relevant, somehow. Consequently, while Big Sky is not a good show, I am certain I am going to continue watching it when it returns in 2021 only to find out if this pandemic stuff actually pays off. Maybe that’s why Kelley slid those bits of dialogue in there: to make us keep tuning in out of curiosity, to see whether a bewildering narrative decision is ever explained. If that was the goal, my mask’s off to you, sir, because: mission accomplished.

So, Is There a Pandemic on Big Sky or Not?