An all-female central cast, a tricksy timeline narrative involving the abusive husband of one of the characters being murdered, all of which is set in a middle-class community where everyone knows each other’s name and secrets are hard to keep. On paper, this might sound like a description of Big Little Lies, but it’s really the latest concoction from Sharon Horgan.
Don’t let the involvement of Horgan, or even co-creators Dave Finkel and Brett Baer whose previous credits include writing for New Girl, fool you into thinking you’re in for a light dose of comedic fun. There are jokes and some comedy here, most of which flips between gentle to very dark, but Bad Sisters is a series unafraid to get knee-deep into its more disturbing themes and to find darkness in even the littlest of details.
Horgan herself has become something of a prominent figure in Irish and British female-centred comedy, from co-creating Catastrophe to her contributions to Motherland, not to mention executive producing and co-starring in This Way Up, but Bad Sisters is perhaps her closest foray into drama/thriller territory as a writer, with so much of her trademark wit still present.
On a narrative and surface level so much of this is reminiscent of David E. Kelley’s adaptation of Big Little Lies and yet this is arguably a better rendition of this type of story. Like that series, Bad Sisters is an adaptation, in this case, an English language remake of Flemish drama Clan, with the story transported to a none more Irish setting.
The green fields, wind-swept seas, not to mention the skies that can flit from rainy grey to a gorgeous light shade of blue, end up hiding all manner of secrets and revelations, becoming a setting for a story where murder and subterfuge play out over ten increasingly fraught episodes.
In many ways, this is the type of story you’d want to be told by a group of female writers and directors. For all of Big Little Lies’ reputation for being some sort of modern masterpiece, it was still a series that fell into so many of the traps that David E. Kelley can never avoid, and while it boasted an A-list cast and director, its feminist credentials were questionable given how it treated director Andrea Arnold in the second season and how it turned themes of domestic abuse into sensationalist soap opera fodder.
I say this as someone who watched both seasons and was engrossed by the whole thing but I never found it the great profound masterpiece everyone else seemingly thought it was. Horgan, on the other hand, proves to be a more unflinchingly intelligent crafter of this material.
Yes, it utilizes the cliche that is unavoidable nowadays with prestigious peak TV of flashing backwards and forward in time, but it uses that trope to dazzlingly suspenseful effect, leaving you wondering how the events of the past will end up reverberating into the present.
Themes of sisterhood are taken to a literal degree here as the women caught up in the events here are siblings, bonded together by love, a need to protect one of their own and trying desperately to hold on to the secret that leads them to the funeral of John Paul (Claes Bang), the abusive husband of Grace (Anne Marie-Duff).
Horgan’s trademark playfulness comes from wondering how it is John Paul ends up dead, and a large portion of the episodes involve the attempts of Grace’s sisters at killing John Paul going wrong through his ability to dodge their numerous attempts at murder. While there is some darkly tuned comedy here, it never for once belittles or sells out the intensity of its depiction of domestic abuse.
Claes Bang, familiar to most viewers no doubt for his performances as Dracula in the recent BBC series and Stephen Merchant’s The Outlaws, brings a snide and repugnant menace to his scenes, whether it be in his abilities to constantly belittle Grace and her sisters, manipulating events to suit his own goals or expressing increasingly outdated conservative views, while Duff brings a genuine sense of distress as Grace.
She says so much with so little and is all the more powerful for it. The feeling of horror that the series captures of someone who puts on a smile as a mask, brushes to the side how she genuinely feels and tries to pretend everything’s normal even though she knows it isn’t, is captured with vividly distressing detail. There is a brilliant sense of ‘show, don’t tell’ in how she plays the role.
The rest of the cast is rounded out perfectly, not least when it comes to Grace’s sisters who all feel like genuinely individual characters with their own set of identities. Each has their own stories going on, some of which end up falling into the orbit of John Paul which makes him an even more formidable antagonist in their lives.
Horgan, Duff, Eva Birthistle, Sarah Greene and Eve Hewson are all brilliant and Horgan and the writers that she has assembled ensure each and every one of them has their moment to shine either with a well timed one-liner or with something even more dramatically powerful.
It takes its time to make sure to flesh out all of the characters. Thomas (Brian Gleeson) and Matthew (Daryl McCormack) are brilliant as the brothers who are trying to prove something sinister went down with John Paul’s death. Their motivation comes from the fact that if they payout on his vast life insurance claim they’ll lose the family business. They’re not painted as villains or as clowns but as real people. Every character is treated with great respect and it’s hard not to feel for everyone caught up in John Paul’s world.
As a darkly comic thriller, it works wonders, while as a drama about domestic abuse it proves to be unflinchingly powerful by being daringly subtle, using emotions, words and character as a way to portray toxicity. As a female-led series from one of television’s best writers today, it’s another brilliantly well done piece of work in a list of credits that is constantly getting better and better.
Bad Sisters is streaming now on Apple TV+ dropping a new episode every Friday.