TV: Bad Sisters (Season 1)

The depth and quality of Apple’s content library continues to impress with Bad Sisters, a time-jumping, seriocomic mystery about complicated, highly dysfunctional families. This Ireland-based series involves the tight-knit but sketchy Garvey sisters: Eva (Sharon Horgan), Ursula (Eva Birthistle), Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), Bibi (Sarah Greene), and Becka (Eve Hewson). Outwardly, they’re perfectly ordinary, if perhaps closer than many siblings. But as the story opens, they’ve come together in the wake of a death in the family: that of Grace’s beloved husband John Paul “JP” Williams (Claes Bang). It quickly becomes clear that while Grace is devastated by JP’s death, the rest of her sisters aren’t nearly as stricken by grief; if anything, they’re overjoyed that JP—whom they refer to as “the prick”—is finally dead, and in fact, they very likely had something to do with it. But JP’s death, which should be the end of their problems, only leads to more strife. The life insurance agent in charge of JP’s policy, Thomas Claffin (Brian Gleeson), can’t afford to pay out JP’s policy without bankrupting his business. With a child on the way and his financial prospects in tatters, Thomas is desperate to find foul play in JP’s murder, so he can deny the claim. To that end, he enlists his half-brother Matt (Daryl McCormack) to help him investigate, hoping to find a way out of his predicament—which creates a new one for the sisters.

A bit under the radar, Bad Sisters slots nicely into the recent trend of dark mystery-comedies that includes shows like Dead to Me and Search Party, although the humor isn’t so much laugh-out-loud funny as farcically tragic. The contentious present-track dealings, which pit the Claffin brothers and Garvey sisters against one other, alternate with extensive flashbacks that chronicle the sisters’ murder plot: its origins, its justifications, and all its incompetent efforts. Over the course of this past narrative, the seeds of the sinister mission—sparked by the no-bullshit Bibi and ring-led by the matriarchal Eva—are planted, then grow, roping in the other sisters as attempt after attempt fails. Structurally, it’s not just a whodunit, but a layered howdunit and whydunit, as the viewer is teased as to the ultimate circumstances of JP’s death.

These shenanigans are often ridiculous, but they end up being a vehicle for intense drama too, and that’s where Bad Sisters becomes more interesting and perhaps more difficult to pigeon hole. The murdery silliness wages war with grim, somber tones and serious issues, for JP’s smarmy villainy grows increasingly vile as the flashbacks continue, showing the numerous ways he has smothered poor Grace and meddled in the lives and happiness of the sisters. Bang is singularly, fantastically despicable in this role, bringing JP’s surgically hurtful dialogue to sickening life. He is so easy to hate that the excruciating process of waiting for him to get his comeuppance is bearable, simply for knowing that it will come, especially given how unbalanced the show keeps you about how precisely it will happen. Meanwhile, JP’s gaslighting evil affords intense acting opportunities for his many victims, especially Anne-Marie Duff, whose nuanced vulnerability as Grace is heartbreaking, and helps rally support for the sisters’ questionable behavior.

Does it have a firm handle on its tone? At times, no; its vibrates along on comic energy, frequently undercut by the disturbing venom of the conflict. These opposite ends of the spectrum orbit each other awkwardly, but swell into something memorable, resolving in a final moment that brings uncommon, much needed relief. It does appear Bad Sisters has been renewed, and while this is great news in some respects, I hope they take their time with the scripts, because it’s hard to imagine a follow-up that can match this contraption’s intense blend of high drama and murderous mayhem.

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