John-Paul Williams is a bad, bad husband. He’s belittling, controlling, physically imposing. He exclusively calls his wife “mammy”, even in front of company. In other words, he has to go. Mercifully, when we first meet him in the new Dublin whodunnit Bad Sisters, he’s already dead – a fact that doesn’t keep John-Paul, played with cultivated smugness by Danish actor Claes Bang, from posthumously threatening to tear his family apart.
The Apple TV+ miniseries from Catastrophe co-creator Sharon Horgan occurs across 10 enthusiastic episodes and two hilariously interwoven timelines – one that precedes JP’s untimely demise and a second that follows from it. In the earlier timeline, JP’s four sisters-in-law plot how to extract their diminished fifth sister Grace, an aching Anne-Marie Duff, from her gaslighting husband. In the second timeline, they scrabble to hide their misdeeds from a couple of pesky suits looking for any excuse not to pay out John-Paul’s life insurance policy.
The darkly bonkers premise is ripped from a 2012 Belgian thriller called Clan, but it’s Horgan’s writing and the performances of the ecstatic ensemble who play the bad, bad sisters that provide the series’ real kicks. Horgan is the fiercely protective matriarch – the one who drinks enough to say what the others are thinking. Sarah Greene (Penny Dreadful) plays one-eyed Bibi, her faithful lieutenant, and Eva Birthistle (The Last Kingdom) is excruciating to watch as Ursula, a dissatisfied nurse and mother. Becka, played by Behind Her Eyes’ Eve Hewson (Bono’s daughter), is the free-spirited baby sister who, even as an adult, suspects she’s been relegated to a metaphorical kids’ table.
JP’s awfulness is too relentless for his death to be very lamentable, and the Garveys are so enchantingly charismatic together that it’s impossible not to root for them, even when the game is homicide. “You’d have an easier time offing the bloody Road Runner,” Horgan’s Eva quips when JP escapes yet another attempt on his life. The conflict between the sisters is either comic (Eva is dismayed when Bibi complains of hunger on a JP stakeout) or the deep-rooted kind that happens when people who know each other tread where they shouldn’t. If Horgan’s sensational BBC Two sitcom Motherland, about a cabal of middle-class London mums, is a study in icy, convenient female friendship, then Bad Sisters is about the profound lifelong bonds that can grow in place of so-called healthy boundaries. These orphaned adult sisters can’t be themselves unless they get their Grace back.
The series debuts with a two-episode premiere, followed by a more traditional one episode a week schedule. I generally favour an old-school slow leak of episodes, but even I must admit the sharp, chummy world Horgan creates here would make a terrific binge session. Honestly, if it meant I could spend more time in their warmly murderous clutches, I’d watch the Garvey girls go after the Road Runner next.