Major spoilers follow for Bad Sisters' plot. You've been warned.
Back in 2019, during a Q&A session at the BFI with Aisling Bea, Bad Sisters creator Sharon Horgan talked about the possibility of making a comedy thriller TV show about a domestic abuse victim. “We’re doing one,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s not a hard sell, it’s a f*****g hard sell for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s storytelling, and sometimes when you’re dealing with a difficult situation, you’re desperately in need of finding humour and laugh within it.”
Comedy is not the natural bedfellow of a series about domestic abuse – and murder for that matter – but, true to her word, that’s the ethos behind Horgan’s newest project, Bad Sisters, which arrives on Apple TV Plus on Friday, August 19.
Remarkably, she makes it work. Setting the story – adapted by Horgan from the original Belgian series, Clan, written by Malin-Sarah Gozin – in Ireland was a smart touch, as the Irish sense of humour is naturally driven by a delicious darkness. So when a jocular conversation arises between four of the five Garvey sisters about hypothetically knocking off their hideous brother-in-law, it’s as light as discussing whether to head to the pub for another drink.
“You can’t just explode a man,” Eva Garvey (Horgan) initially scoffs to her siblings. Or can you, if he’s a sadistic psychopath, hellbent on slowly destroying every member of your entire family?
Herein lies the hook for the entire series. The sisters – who we learn lost their parents in a car crash – might be branded as ‘bad’, but the real villain of the piece is John Paul ‘JP’ Williams, who's played with real menace and malice by Claes Bang. Bang was last seen terrorising Transylviana as the blood-sucking, macabre beast in Dracula, and he’s an equally horrific ghoul in this series, too. The sisters nickname JP “The Prick” but, as his sociopathic nature is revealed throughout the show, he’s deserving of far worse.
And he gets it, too. Full spoiler warning, but viewers find out he’s kicked the bucket in the opening minutes of the show. Episode by episode, by flashing backwards and forwards through time, the series builds up the case for any one of the women offing their vile brother-in-law, with each outing focusing on one of the Garvey women and how JP's monstrous ways emotionally and psychologically broke them in turn. The question, then, is who cracked and performed the dirty deed, with Bad Sisters leading viewers on a merry narrative dance that has you second guessing who did it at every turn.
The series has been described as an Irish iteration of hit HBO Max series Big Little Lies, and it’s easy to see why the comparison has been made. From the band of women joining together to overthrow a predatory, abusive man, to the way the series has been shot, Bad Sisters feels like an homage to HBO's own subversive dark comedy show. It even takes inspiration from Big Little Lies with its aesthetic; Bad Sisters' lush footage of the coastline (this time in Dublin, rather than Big Little Lies' Monterey), interspersed with glimpses of some of the sisters’ affluent lifestyles and enviable houses on the beach.
Equal to the Reese Witherspoon production, there’s no weak link in the brilliant ensemble cast of sisters. The show effortlessly conveys their tight bond and how far they’ll go to protect each other, all the while providing enough screen time for each actor to show off their acting skills. That includes the commanding screen presence of Anne-Marie Duff (as the intensely fragile Grace, wife of JP), Eva Birthistle (as Ursula), Sarah Greene (as Bibi), and the impressive “baby” of the group, aka Becka, played by Eve Hewson – Bono’s daughter, for those unaware – who was recently the lead in Netflix thriller series Behind Her Eyes.
Brian Gleeson puts in a solid performance as the permanently stressed insurance man Thomas Claffin, who believes there’s more to JP’s death that the women are letting on, and is determined to get to the bottom of it himself so his firm doesn’t have to pay out.
He’s joined by his half-brother Matt (Daryl McCormack) in crashing wakes and questioning the Garvey sisters unnecessarily, but it's this sort of slapstick subplot that actually falls a bit flat. We’re told we need to invest in Thomas’s character because he has a pregnant wife at home on bed rest, and his business is in trouble, but it’s just not as engaging as the sisters’ predicament. As the characters keep telling him, he’s an insurance man, not a policeman, so it doesn’t raise the stakes as much for them being found out, than, say, if a crack detective inspector was on their case. There's also time for a budding romance between Matt and Becka allows a sort of forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet romance to play out – an expected plot device, sure, but one that works well in the context of this show.
After stealing several scenes in French comedy-drama Call My Agent, it’s nice to see Assaad Bouab pop up again, this time as a sweet-talking French colleague who sets out to charm Eve. As we find out in the series, if there’s anyone that deserves a bit of happiness, it’s Eve, but then life has other plans for her too – the bleakness of which she usually covers with a self-deprecating joke.
The series does feel a little drawn out over 10 episodes – by episode seven you’ll be wishing for the reveal already, and it doesn’t quite have that all-consuming quality that forces a binge-watch in one sitting. However, that’s a good thing, as the series' weekly episodic release structure allows viewers to take their time with this Apple TV Plus show and ruminate over the storylines, which effectively build to a shocking and emotive climax in the final episode. Bad Sisters successfully attempts to push the boundaries of the darkest comedy-drama, and thanks to the strength of the powerful cast, makes it an engaging watch that’s more than worthy of the remake.
The first two episodes of Bad Sisters are available to stream on Apple TV Plus from Friday, August 19. Episodes release weekly after that point.