They call him the Prick, and that’s putting it nicely. John Paul “JP” Williams (Claes Bang, fresh off The Northman) is an objectively terrible person. He throws elbows at work, pokes at family members’ psychic wounds, spies on people for blackmail purposes. He’s racist, homophobic, virulently misogynistic—you name it, he hates it. “I think they dipped him in vinegar before they handed him over” at birth, his elderly mother muses. No one suffers more from his acidic temper than his wife, Grace (Sex Education’s Anne-Marie Duff), a meek woman who absorbs constant physical and emotional abuse in the name of love. His revolting pet name for her: Mammy.
Lucky for Grace, she has four fiercely devoted—and seriously charming—Irish sisters who’d go to great lengths to liberate her. They even fantasize about killing him. So, when JP perishes under bizarre circumstances and his death is nonetheless ruled an accident, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder if they might secretly be responsible. Bad Sisters, a wickedly funny, genuinely poignant new Apple TV+ dramedy created by Catastrophe alum Sharon Horgan, takes its time recounting what really happened.
Premiering with a two-episode drop on Aug. 19, the show opens on the day of JP’s funeral. As Grace and the couple’s tween daughter Blánaid (Saise Ní Chuinn) mourn, the other Garvey sisters, who range in age from 30ish to 40-something, slink around the wake drinking, speaking ill of the dead, and looking over their shoulders. The awkward gathering becomes even more so with the arrival of Tom Claffin (Brian Gleeson from Peaky Blinders), whose mom-and-pop insurance agency Claffin & Sons is due to pay out JP’s $875,000 life insurance policy. Now floundering in the aftermath of Claffin père’s death, the company simply doesn’t have the funds. The only way out of this mess, for Tom and his half-brother Matt (Daryl McCormack, recently great in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande), is to void the policy by proving JP was murdered.
Their amateur investigation splits the plot into two timelines. As the Garvey girls endure Tom and Matt’s questioning in the present, flashbacks trace the lead-up to JP’s death. The women come into focus one by one. Eva (Horgan), the eldest, gave up her youth to care for her sisters after their parents’ death; now she’s a single career woman haunted by her inability to conceive children of her own. She still babies Becka (Eve Hewson from The Luminaries), the free-spirit youngest Garvey, who practices massage therapy and dates a lot of disappointing men. In the middle, along with Grace, are Ursula (Eva Birthistle of The Last Kingdom), a nurse and mother who’s cheating on her husband, and Bibi (Normal People’s Sarah Greene), the most mysterious of the bunch, a brash curmudgeon who’s partnered with a woman and rocks an eye patch.
What we don’t find out, as we’re getting to know the Garveys, are the details of JP’s demise. By withholding them, Bad Sisters, an adaptation of the Belgian series Clan, creates multiple sources of suspense. We don’t know if the sisters will successfully get the Claffins off their backs, but we also don’t know whether one or more of them is actually the killer, or if the whole thing really was an accident. We also don’t know, at first, what each woman isn’t telling the others. Meanwhile, the revelations about everything monstrous JP has done to his sisters-in-law escalate. Twists that keep various mysteries alive throughout a 10-episode series (one that probably should’ve run just six or eight) can vary in believability. At one point, the show turns a corner from darkly comic to full-on macabre and nearly goes off the rails. When we get to the finale, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
And yet, I never stopped having fun. Like Big Little Lies, this is a show that’s less about whodunit (if anyone) than it is about a community of women supporting each other through complex, sometimes outright tragic experiences. The Garveys interact just like real siblings; they bicker and feud and occasionally say awful things to each other, but they also take care of each other when it matters most. Tom and Matt have their own long-simmering fraternal conflicts, heightened by Matt’s budding romance with Becka and the delicate health of Tom’s wife, who’s on bed rest awaiting the birth of their first child. Horgan populates the supporting cast with equally vivid characters, from Grace’s thoughtful, smitten neighbor Roger (Michael Smiley) to Gabriel (Assaad Bouab), Eva’s dashing French co-worker and love interest.
Every performance is strong, but it’s the love and grit that Horgan, Hewson, and Duff radiate that bring warmth to what might otherwise have been a bloodless thriller. In a role that echoes his fellow Scandinavian and Northman co-star Alexander Skarsgård’s loathsome Lies villain, Bang comes off as perfectly hateable. The sharp dialogue will come as no surprise to Catastrophe fans; Horgan’s writing can be devilishly funny (an anti-choice pin depicting a fetus’ upturned palms is described as “abortion jazz hands”) but also devastating. “Do you know when you look most beautiful?” JP asks Grace. “When I can’t see any of them”—her sisters—”in you.”
The show’s ideas about men, women, and sisterhood aren’t exactly groundbreaking, post-#MeToo and post-Lies. But the pleasure of Bad Sisters is in the execution (no pun intended). The writing and performances make the Garvey girls feel so real, you miss them when it’s over. Indeed, there’s enough material in their histories, personalities, and relationships to fuel several engrossing seasons of television. Maybe, once the JP affair is finally put to rest, that show could even be a sitcom.
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