Bad Sisters should have been titled The Prick. That’s what the Garvey sisters call their brother-in-law, John Paul Williams—and for good reason. JP (Claes Bang) is a darkly handsome shell encasing a spirit of pure malevolence. His one true joy in life seems to be devising ever more deviously creative ways of shitting on his nearest and dearest. Favorite targets include his slavishly loyal wife Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) and her four ornery Irish siblings: Becka (Eve Hewson), Bibi (Sarah Greene), Ursula (Eva Birthistle), and Eva, who raised her sisters after their parents died in an accident. Eva is played by Sharon Horgan, the mastermind behind the edgy dramedy Catastrophe, who also wrote and produced Bad Sisters.
Although Bad Sisters is adapted from the Belgian series Clan, Horgan’s sensibility— sharp-tongued, fiery, playfully raunchy—suffuses this AppleTV+ mash-up of mystery, black comedy and family drama. The very first time we glimpse JP, he’s lying in a coffin, where Grace tries to hide his posthumous boner with a bit of her embroidery. As the sisters watch his corpse being carted away, Ursula wonders why Grace chose to dress him in pajamas. “She wants to make eternal damnation more comfy for him,” Bibi cracks.
Who killed JP? His gruesome death is ruled an accident, but there’s no shortage of potential motives and culprits. The ten episode series quickly reveals itself as a quirky whodunnit, filed somewhere between Only Murders in the Building and Dead to Me, with a touch of Fleabag’s rumpled charm. Clicking through the past like slides in a children’s Viewmaster toy, Bad Sisters shows us key moments in recent history when JP manipulated or abused each sister (and some of the men in their lives too). He knows how to rub salt in psychic wounds—taunting Eva about her inability to have children, fat-shaming his teenage daughter, screwing with Becka’s business—and gleefully resorts to blackmail and reputation-smearing.
For Eva and her sisters, the worst part is the way JP treats Grace: calling her “Mammy,” undermining her fragile confidence, restricting her movements and generally reducing her to a ghost of her youthful self. At one point he brings her champagne in the morning just so that he can declare that she’s too drunk to drive—effectively banning her from meeting her sisters for their traditional winter swim in the Irish Sea. Despairing at Grace’s absence, the Garvey women start jokily musing about how they’d kill JP. Feed him to the neighbors’ pigs? Tamper with his beloved car? “Kill the prick!” they shout, laughing joyfully.
Bad Sisters knots together a tangle of conflicts and resentments which gradually unravel like a skein of knitting yarn. Adding to the suspense is the arrival of Thomas Claffin (Brian Gleeson), a local insurance agent determined to prove foul play so he doesn’t have to pay out JP’s $875,000 policy. Claffin gatecrashes the wake, styling himself as a bumbling wannabe Columbo who asks the mourning widow, “One quick question: Where were you the night your husband died?” while stealing a load of sandwiches for the road. Thomas’s half-brother Matthew (Daryl McCormack, fresh off his star turn in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande) is far more charming and considerate. Yet he inadvertently gets emotionally entangled with exuberant massage therapist Becka, a relationship that will create problems for both of them.
The show’s title sequence is a Rube Goldberg-type contraption—a sort of murder machine made out of rolling glass eyes, hatchets, and burning matches—that sets the Gothic tone perfectly. So does PJ Harvey’s baleful rendition of the Leonard Cohen song “Who By Fire,” itself a list of fatalities and methods of dispatch: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate?… Who by avalanche, who by powder?… Who by his own hand?” The show blends the atavistic and the fully contemporary: witchy bonfires and taxidermy (an echo of creepy Norman Bates) jostle with pussy pics and a Lizzo concert. Much of the fun of Bad Sisters lies in the fantasizing of intricate assassinations. At one point, Bibi suggests trying to kill JP at the office where he works with Eva. “We work in an open plan architectural firm,” Eva points out. “What are we gonna do: paper cut him to death?”
As scheme after scheme gets thwarted or backfires, the show hurtles forward with a manic propulsiveness. Bad Sisters delivers what contemporary streaming demands: narrative franticity and cliffhangerism of the sort that compels viewers to binge. Yet I spent a lot of the ten episodes thinking that I would happily watch a slower-paced and stripped-down show about the Garvey sisters without these Clue elements. It’s not their wicked plans but the clannishness of these five irrepressible women that holds your attention and even makes you feel a little envious.