‘The Undoing’ creator lured back to network TV for ‘Big Sky’

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Writer-producer David E. Kelley gifted network TV with three decades of hits, including “Ally McBeal,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal.” Then he switched to a new canvas, premium cable, to make HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and “The Undoing.”

He’s in very good company, with Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) and Ryan Murphy (“Glee”) among other successful network producers who moved shop to streaming services and cable channels.

The advantages the platforms offer — including creative freedom and the appeal that limited series have to in-demand stars — failed to deter ABC executive Karey Burke from trying to woo Kelley back to broadcast on the Disney-owned network.

She succeeded with “Big Sky,” based on a C.J. Box crime novel that caught Kelley’s interest. The series (airing 10 p.m. EST Tuesday) stars Katheryn Winnick and Kylie Bunbury as an ex-police officer and private detective in search of sisters missing in Montana.

“I feel very lucky that David trusted us with this story,” Burke said. “I think he believed in our mission, which is really to bring the great creators back to broadcast television to tell meaningful stories to the widest possible audience.”

Long-time professional ties also helped: Burke was an executive at NBC attached to the 1980s drama series “L.A. Law,” on which young attorney Kelley was a fledgling screenwriter and later producer, and Disney Television entertainment chief Dana Walden worked with him on Fox’s “Ally McBeal.”

Despite his respect for Burke, Kelley’s said, his first answer was a polite no.

“‘The content is a little disturbing and and it’s just not broadcast fare,'” he told her. He recounted Burke’s reply: the network wanted to be more “aggressive in our storytelling” to compete with cable and streaming.

“So off we want,” Kelley said.

ABC reinforced its commitment to the series Monday, ordering six more episodes for a total of 16. The network was able to tout “Big Sky” as among the season’s top-rated shows, albeit in a TV season destabilized by pandemic-forced production delays.

“Big Sky” drew sharp criticism from Native American groups and advocates for overlooking the ongoing crisis of crimes against Indigenous women, including in Montana, which Kelley and the show’s other producers have vowed to address.

As part of a recent corporate restructuring, Burke is moving from ABC Entertainment chief to president of 20th Television, the Disney-owned studio that produces “Big Sky,” with the hands-on attention she promised Kelley able to remain intact.

He registered no complaints about network meddling but remains aware of the possibility, candidly sketching out the worst-case scenarios.

“Here’s the way it can go: ‘The show isn’t working, so you need to make these changes for us.’ And the other way it goes, is, ‘This show is working and we don’t want to break it or alienate the audience,’” Kelley said. “I’m confident that won’t happen with Kerry, but that is the danger in broadcast.”

Burke remains bullish about network TV as a worthy creative home, arguing that it remains unmatched as “a delivery system,” citing its free, over-the-air reach that combines with on-demand viewing options to reach a wide audience. Sam Esmail, creator of USA Network’s ”Mr. Robot” and Amazon’s “Homecoming,” hadn’t worked in network TV but is developing a show for ABC, she said.

She also cited the topicality possible with shows that air weekly compared to streaming series that are released a full season at a time.

ABC’s medical series “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor” were able to pivot quickly to weave “what’s going on in our hospitals and with our health care workers into their story lines,” she said, a reference to COVID-19.

But the talent drain is real, both among creators with niche projects ill-suited to ratings-dependent broadcasters and top actors such as Nicole Kidman, star of Kelley’s pair of HBO series, who prefer short-run series that allow time for other TV or film projects.

Kelley himself says “Big Sky” may be an outlier for him, with his next projects set for Hulu and Netflix. He can’t avoid taking a swat at an immutable aspect of broadcasting that’s avoided on streaming and premium cable.

“Commercials were onerous and have only become more so, and I’ll hold my breath and close my eyes during ‘Big Sky’ when the commercials come on because it’s just aggravating. It affects the way you tell stories,” he said. “You get the prospect of telling any kind of slow, emotionally building story interrupted by Dodge Ram commercials. Dodge makes a fine truck, but it’s tough.”

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Lynn Elber can be reached at lelber@ap.org and is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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