New Apple TV+ dark comedy Bad Sisters follows a family of Irish women who vow to help each other through thick and thin. Thick comes in the form of a miserable brother-in-law, who’s lying in a coffin and represents loose ends for all of them.
Can they outmaneuver a desperate insurance investigator and keep from turning on each other? This is good TV. Let’s just watch it cook.
Bad Sisters first two episodes recap
Season 1, episodes 1 and 2: In the show, based on Belgian series Clan, the Garvey sisters are a mess. Grace (played by Anne-Marie Duff) is burying her husband, John-Paul (Claes Bang), the father of her daughter Blanaid (Saise Quinn).
JP was a horrible, horrible jerk — emotionally abusive and abrasive about everything. But the family members — Ursula (Eva Birthistle), Becka (Eve Hewson), Bibi (Sarah Greene) and Eva (show creator Sharon Horgan) — all reluctantly agree to come to the funeral to keep up appearances. They all loathed John Paul, though, and Bibi laughs out loud when the priest mentions all the good deeds he did in life.
Becka almost doesn’t make it to the funeral. A cyclist named Matthew Claffin (Daryl McCormack) nearly kills her on the way. Matthew and his brother, Tom (Brian Gleeson), run an insurance company. And they’ve been tasked with investigating the circumstances of JP’s death.
Later, Becka runs into Matthew at a bar while Tom interrogates the rest of the sisters at the funeral. Sarah accidentally reveals that she isn’t sad about John Paul’s death, while Becka’s trying to get Matthew to take her home.
So many motives to kill the bastard
He’s obviously reluctant to do so because he’s investigating her for murder. Matthew makes a complete ass of himself at the funeral, but he apologizes to Tom about it later by way of a confession; their firm is going under unless they manage to make the sisters default this claim. Matthew’s wife, Theresa (Seána Kerslake), has a baby on the way. He can’t go broke right now.
So, wouldn’t it be a shame if they all had motive to kill JP? But, as luck would have it, they do.
Ursula was having an affair and JP knew about it. He tried to take Eva’s promotion at their office. It’s strongly suggested that he had something to do with Becka’s missing eye. And, of course, he turned Grace into a terrified shell of her former self with his bullying and bizarre paternalistic condescension.
Curiously, however, when we flash back to six months ago — despite every one of the Garvey girls’ anxiousness to see their sister’s prick of a husband bumped off — initially it’s only Bibi and Eva who move forward with the plan … which backfires in all senses of the word.
But if they didn’t manage to kill him that time, just how did he end up dead?
Strange way to meet your end
This one’s good, folks. I confess that show creator Sharon Horgan (who you might know from British sitcoms Pulling and Catastrophe), and indeed a lot of Irish TV veterans present here in front of and behind the camera, are not performers with whom I have much familiarity. So it’s good to get to know these characters and the people creating them at the same time.
I do know, however, Horgan’s producers and fellow writers Dave Finkel and Brett Baer, who produced a ton of American network TV, from 30 Rock to New Girl to, of course, everyone’s favorite sitcom Joey. And while somewhere in there is obviously a high batting average of success, not all of those shows were created equally. Thankfully, Finkel and Baer seem to have let Horgan’s instincts, and a much more depressive European vibe, reign supreme on this show. Or who knows? Maybe they’ve been waiting their whole lives to write something this good.
A thoroughly despicable villain
First of all, there’s the believably hideous John Paul. In America, the character would be either a much more winking version of a villain or just an outright monster. Claes Bang plays him magnificently; you loathe this man, but you’ve also probably met people like him.
JP moves into other people’s lives and quickly converts or rejects everything he doesn’t like. Maybe he’s a little too Machiavellian, but Bad Sisters is about his death, so I understand the impulse to really make him a slappable cretin.
You believe his very bizarre attitudes toward sex. And the actor’s small, intense eyes give off only contempt for most of the world around him. Brian Gleeson also proves memorably grotesque in his portrayal of Tom, the sweaty, sickly, more evil of the Claffin brothers.
The stellar Garvey sisters
But the real show here is the sisters. Eve Hewson’s character probably will become more significant down the road, but in the first two episodes, Becka doesn’t play a big role in the important parts of the narrative. I know it’s sort of meant to be a comedy beat, but the show has her lying on a big bouncy ball in her massage studio, then when we cut back to her (presumably days later) she’s on the massage table not doing anything.
I know that’s the joke, but also, shouldn’t she be taking part in the world a little more actively? Not that it matters, really. Watching Hewson sit on a big rubber ball is still more interesting than watching most actors do Hamlet.
She came to prominence playing the corrupt nurse Elkins on the magnificent Steven Soderbergh TV show The Knick, and I’ve been watching her career with interest ever since. She did a really nice job in Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, and I’m anxious for Bad Sisters to afford her some heavier lifting.
Anne-Marie Duff’s wounded doe energy at all of her husband’s awful transgressions and swipes is quietly heartbreaking. You want to cry for her as she, time and again, sells out her family so as not to further incur the ire of the man she promised to stay with in sickness and health.
Stellar performances all around
It initially proved a little difficult to tell her, Horgan and Eva Birthistle apart (they’re all beautiful, statuesque blondes with thick Irish accents). But by the second episode, everyone had been sorted out in my mind. Birthistle does a great job walking the fine line between confident and sexy, and a ball of nerves and apologies. Her character, Ursula, knows she deserves better things, but also feels very bad when she takes them for herself. I wonder if Bad Sisters is set in a Catholic country?
Horgan admirably doesn’t attempt to steal the spotlight from her co-stars (her name’s on the tin, so to speak, so there’s little need to overemphasize herself). And she comes across as at once the most level-headed and the most reckless, even if it isn’t her who decides that John Paul needs to be put on ice.
I can’t take my eyes off Bibi
That honor belongs to the best element of the show, Sarah Greene‘s splendidly wicked Bibi. Greene was not known to me before Bad Sisters, though she’s been steadily working for the last 15 years on high-profile stuff I just didn’t find time for.
Now I feel a little ridiculous, because when she shows up looking like death herself at JP’s funeral in a suit and eyepatch, curtly swearing at anything and everything, and simply radiating menace and misery, I was absolutely hooked. Bad Sisters could be a lot worse and I’d still be anxious to continue watching it because of her performance alone. That’s a star right there.
Thankfully, the show is good and earns all this great work. It’s well-directed, the writing is mostly confident, funny, and affecting, and the soundtrack is full of catchy, nervous music. Let’s do this.
Watch Bad Sisters on Apple TV+
The first two episodes of Bad Sisters premiered Friday on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive every Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.