Think about the worst guy you know. What about the second-worst guy? Keep this up for a while longer, then combine them all, and you might start to get a mental picture of the world-class jerk at the center of “Bad Sisters.” The new Apple TV+ series from “Catastrophe” co-creator Sharon Horgan is about a man who’s so off-putting and manipulative that when he meets his maker earlier than expected, the question isn’t who would want him dead, but who wouldn’t? It’s a simple idea, but it’s one the series is able to run with thanks to a cast of winning characters, a streak of pitch-black humor, and a surprisingly transgressive frankness with regard to its central violence.
When “Bad Sisters” begins, John Paul Williams (Claes Bang) is already dead. We see his family gathered to mourn him, including his daughter, his wife Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), and Grace’s four sisters. Except, very few people are actually mourning. These are, of course, the titular bad sisters, and over the next several episodes, the series zooms back in time to show us just how John Paul pushed each one of them to their breaking point.
There’s Horgan’s Eva, a single working woman who’s JP’s most obvious hater. There’s Sarah Greene’s Bibi, a scowling woman with one eye who has a very good reason to hate her brother-in-law. Eva Birthistle plays Ursula, a wife and mother with a lot to lose, while Eve Hewson’s Becka is the youngest and most free-spirited of the bunch. When JP dies, each of them becomes the subject of scrutiny from a pair of local insurance claim investigators (Brian Gleeson and Daryl McCormack), one of which gets a lot closer to the suspects than he intends to.
While “Bad Sisters” might sound like a whodunnit that’s ripe for solving, it’s actually an extremely dark comedy whose culprits are pretty clear from the beginning. The question then becomes not who would want to kill JP, but why? And as the show stretches to ten episodes (seven are available for review), detailing both the transgressions of the dead man and the sisterly plots that may have led to his end, it becomes clear that even that may not be the question “Bad Sisters” wants us to focus on.
Rather, its most interesting accomplishment is sharing its blunt, borderline transgressive worldview. When it comes down to it, there’s no question among the involved characters that JP has got to go. The show possesses a sort of twisted idealism, one that posits that maybe some complicated problems could truly be solved if an evil person or two got killed. In the end, it’s more fascinating to watch these women proactively work on murder schemes the same way they’d plan a surprise birthday party than it is to witness the not-so-mysterious mystery of why the man died.
The show’s clever writing does extend to its worst character, though. Far from a caricature or archetypal villain, John Paul embodies a very specific and sinister kind of man. He’s a bully, but the kind who doesn’t want to get caught, spraying cats with hoses when no one’s looking and picking on his wife with razor-sharp passive aggression that keeps her convinced she’s the problem. Duff is excellent as Grace, an endearing character who diminishes into near-invisible brittleness under her husband’s ever-suffocating thumb. Meanwhile, Claes plays her antagonist as an unapologetic misogynist who’s deeply insecure despite his tremendous power, the latter of which he flexes at every turn like a boy in the schoolyard snapping rubber bands at girls’ arms.
Despite perhaps not having quite enough material to sustain its runtime, the show moves forward at a watchable clip thanks to a comedic throughline that’s best left unspoiled. Its dead serious premise is shot through with humor from the start, but at a certain point, it begins to become an almost Nietzschean comedy of errors. The story opens with a funeral that’s beset by a falling coffin, a chuckling crowd, and the deceased’s inappropriate posthumous erection, and things don’t get much better for the Garvey sisters from there.
But there’s a dogged resilience to the bunch that makes watching them fail creatively, stooping to more and more questionable endeavors in the process, both impressive and darkly funny. The series shares a bit of DNA with Netflix’s “Dead To Me,” but it’s a bit less forthright in its big picture, and the laughs it scores are even bleaker. “Bad Sisters” is based on the Flemish series “Clan,” but it transports the action to Dublin and makes good use of its coastal setting. Shots of cars winding along the oceanside highway invoke the famous establishing shots of horror movies, while the water itself is a familiar gathering spot for the sisters, as in a similarly themed series, “Big Little Lies.”
“Bad Sisters” isn’t interested in the titillation and rubbernecking that most crime stories trade in, but presents its conceit matter-of-factly. It doesn’t make its murderous characters into antiheroes whose every move viewers should moralize or gasp over, but lets them come alive as vivid yet single-minded people fueled by an all-absorbing rage. Without this factor, the show would be perfectly fine, buoyed by great performances including those from Horgan, Hewson, and Duff. But with this in mind, the show becomes something bolder, a series that refuses to abide by crime drama cliches – or even well-tread narrative beats – instead choosing to let its story breathe.
“Bad Sisters” is at once slighter than it means to be (its runtime sometimes undercuts the strength of its portrayals) and deeper than an often-shallow genre asks it to be. It’s a good show, and an impressive entry into Horgan’s filmography, which by now includes a number of stories about thorny, complex family dynamics. It offers gutsy humor, great performances, and a deeply interesting premise about the persistent, inexplicable success of terrible men and the strength and savvy of the women who put up with them – until they don’t. [B]