If Sharon Horgan’s attached to a show, there’s a more than decent chance that it’ll be a spiky comedy tinged with the tragedy of everyday indignities. From “Catastrophe” to “Motherland” to “Shining Vale,” Horgan’s cornered an enviable market that almost always delivers, especially when it comes to the ins and outs of being a smart woman in an increasingly dumb world. “Bad Sisters” — debuting Aug. 19 on Apple TV+ — is happily no exception.
From Horgan, Brett Baer and Dave Finkel (“New Girl,” “30 Rock”), “Bad Sisters” takes the premise of the Belgian series “Clan” and twists it into a more Irish shape. Horgan stars as Eva, the eldest of five sisters who took on a more maternal role after both their parents died in a car crash. Joining her are Eva Birthistle (“The Last Kingdom”) as Ursula, a working mother at the end of her rope; Sarah Greene (“Normal People”) as Bibi, a one-eyed lesbian with rage to burn; Eve Hewson (“Behind Her Eyes”) as Becka, the family’s resident wild child; and Anne-Marie Duff (“Sex Education”) as Grace, whose abusive marriage to John Paul (Claes Bang) keeps threatening to extinguish her spark completely — until he suddenly dies, inspiring precious little grief on his way out.
Horgan’s pilot script and Dearbhla Walsh’s directing establishes each Garvey sister’s character and relationships with the others with admirable ease and speed. The series then toggles between the present day, as insurance agents Tom (Brian Gleeson) and Matt (Daryl McCormack) investigate John Paul’s death, and the past, as the sisters (minus Grace) entertain the idea that the world just might be better off without JP, aka “The Prick.” Lest this sound harsh, “Bad Sisters” and Bang’s skin-crawling performance alike make an immediately undeniable case for how horrible JP truly is, as he belittles his wife, insults her family and lashes out when he feels insecure (which is basically all the time). Over the season’s 10 episodes, “Bad Sisters” illustrates exactly how much JP’s needling brand of abuse can chip away at a person. Duff’s deft portrayal of a woman struggling to see her husband’s exploitation for what it is has Grace practically folding in on herself; watching the light dim from her eyes is as hard to watch as it should be, especially given the extremes her sisters ultimately go to in order to bring her back.
It’s not hard to imagine a version of “Bad Sisters” that would double down on the sheer drama of the situation and look a lot like “Big Little Lies.” What keeps this version afloat and makes it more singular is its finely honed (and extremely Irish) sense of humor. As dark as the subject matter gets, the series maintains a canny eye for the ridiculous, injecting laughs in the least likely of moments. Horgan’s Eva — especially when paired with Greene’s scene-stealing Bibi — is shrewd and dryly deadpan. Hewson, playing the absolute opposite of her chilling “Behind Her Eyes” character, finds a charming groove alongside McCormack as he brings his swoony “Good Luck, Leo Grande” A-game. Gleeson, as a desperate man trying to keep his family in one piece, is perhaps most realistic in his bumbling, even as he eventually manages to make a halfway decent inspector. Together, the ensemble creates an entirely believable community of well-meaning misfits — well, aside from Bang’s JP, who’s simply one of the most unpleasant characters to crawl across a television screen in quite some time.
It’s worth noting that each episode of this ostensible comedy does run a solid 50 minutes or longer, which is largely earned even if ultimately unnecessary. “Bad Sisters” balances two timelines, and withholding the full truth of how JP finally died automatically turns it into a whodunnit. But it’s to the show’s credit that it almost doesn’t matter who actually did the deed. What matters is the story of a family trying to save one of their own from spiritual annihilation, and the lengths people will go to in order to keep each other safe. That the show also finds not just moments, but reasons to make its characters and viewers laugh is a testament to how well its writing team can balance a tone that many others would’ve muddled. Even if it’ll be satisfying to learn exactly how JP kicks it, “Bad Sisters” is less about the mystery than its cutting, empathetic take on all the relationships that tangled into such an overwhelming knot along the way.
“Bad Sisters” premieres with two episodes on Friday, August 19 on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly.
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