Bad Sisters: a delicious, intriguing Sharon Horgan caper

This black comedy series, which provides Sharon Horgan, Anne-Marie Duff and Claes Bang with roles to get their teeth into, brews a perfect storm of dark secrets behind a wholesome family facade.

Eve Hewson, Sharon Horgan, Anne-Marie Duff, Eva Birthistle and Sarah Greene in Bad Sisters (2022)

The old adage that blood is thicker than water flows through the latest black comedy series to be co-written and executive produced by Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe, 2015-‘19; Shining Vale, 2022-). Adapted from the 2012 Belgian TV show Clan (aired as The Out-Laws on More4 in the UK), the 10-episode Bad Sisters, first fruit of Horgan’s recent multi-year deal with AppleTV+, brews a perfect storm of dark secrets behind a wholesome family facade. Helmed by a stellar cast of British and Irish actors, including Horgan herself, Bad Sisters is a delicious, intriguing caper.

The five Garvey sisters have lost their parents and since vowed to look out for each other. We first meet Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), quietly snivelling while preparing sandwiches for her late husband’s wake, trying to remain composed as she stares wistfully out of the window, before comically blowing her nose with an almighty honk. This knowing blend of austere drama (the kind you might find in Downtown Abbey) and borderline gross-out humour comes to characterise the series, which bears tonal similarities to Disney+’s recent dark comedy hit Only Murders in the Building (2021–).

It’s one of several character introductions that, helped by the sheer pace at which they unspool, set the tone and structure for this island-set series: nervous tension that builds until things spiral out of control. And though the overarching narrative is set firmly in the present, starting with the funeral of Grace’s husband John Paul (Claes Bang), the majority of its most gripping drama is told in flashback. The camera frequently zooms out, scrolls along a catalogue of freeze-frame options and then zooms back in on a scene from the family’s rich, complex history. The series moves with ease between past and present, sating curiosity just enough before returning to the current day, where tensions are bubbling as two inept insurance brokers try to avoid a pay-out by establishing that foul play lay behind John Paul’s death. Each episode advances the amateur insurance investigation in the vein of a bumbling thriller, with an odd couple for the ages in half-brothers Thomas and Matthew Claffin, played by Brian Gleeson and Daryl McCormack, oozing sleaze and charm, respectively.

Duff excels at embodying the downtrodden Grace, her sunken shoulders and apologetic posture testament to the years of emotional abuse she’s suffered from her husband. Her meek, grieving demeanour stands in stark contrast to the stoicism of her sisters, each of whom experienced some kind of unpleasant relationship with John Paul, toxic masculinity incarnate. Eva (played by Horgan)’s sincerity anchors the series dramatically, holding it back from veering too far into cartoonish stereotypes. That said, Bibi (Sarah Greene), whose visually defining quirk is an eyepatch, takes a near-piratical approach to her sister’s husband. It’s initially her idea to kill him, and after she convinces Eva to assist her, the sisters’ faces – in one of only a handful of such visual explications – appear as one, superimposed in glass, revealing a perspective aligned.

Reeling the series back from its occasionally absurdist edge, the show’s creators ground the characters in very real, topical encounters with misogyny. Eva, Grace and Bibi aren’t the only Garvey sisters to face John Paul’s rampant ego full-on: Ursula (Eva Birthistle) is blackmailed by him, via catfishing and digital-era cruelty, over an extramarital affair. A much-needed strain of light-hearted comedy comes in the form of the fifth sister, Becka (Eve Hewson), a naïve yet charismatic millennial trying to balance self-employment, self-actualisation and sexual confidence with meet-cute romance.

It’s in large part thanks to the cast that the series succeeds in delivering convincing drama, smart comedy and compelling whodunnit mechanics in equal measure. The shifting tonal beats are deftly underscored by music from Tim Phillips and PJ Harvey, while new resonance is given to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Who by Fire’, which plays over the opening titles. Sung by Harvey, the searching questions of the song – ‘Who for his greed, who for his hunger’ – become accusatory.

Recurring aerial shots of winding coastal roads provide rare external perspective, and signal that all routes, no matter how close to the edge they skirt, eventually come together. But one question lingers after watching the four episodes made available to review. While all four of Grace’s sisters hated her misogynistic, sadistic, controlling husband – a truly slimy character Bang embodies with aplomb – the biggest mystery becomes how he weaselled his way into their bloodline to begin with.

Bad Sisters is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.