In the fascinating Apple TV+ mini-series “Bad Sisters”, which has been closely edited Sharon Horgan (“Disaster) from the Belgian series “Clan”, set in and around Dublin, four sisters set out to free the fifth from her destructive husband. The fact that the husband begins the series in a coffin before the story jumps back in time suggests that they have succeeded, although questions remain in the last of the series’ eight episodes.
It’s mostly a comedy.
Horgan plays Eva Garvey, who took responsibility for her siblings after the untimely death of their parents. she and her sister are colorfully distinctive, yet they seem genuinely related, unusually close, if sometimes at odds. (As Closest Families often are.) Fragile Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), whose husband and aforementioned corpse, in addition to John Paul (Claes Bang), grinds him to nothing, there’s Ursula (Eva Birthistle), a nurse and mother of four who somehow manages an affair with her photography teacher; angry Bibi (Sarah Greene), who lost an eye in an accident whose details become remarkable; and bright-eyed Becka (Eve Hewson), a baby, massage therapist with a history of ill-advised relationships but with considerable life force. Everyone has an additional motive for wanting John Paul dead.
There is nothing good to say about him. Manipulative, selfish, controlling, territorial, vindictive, (performatively) judgmental, snobbish, homophobic, sexist, mean, condescending, and passive-aggressively passive-aggressive, he disguises his cruelty to his wife as paternal concern. (One can only assume he’s with Grace because she doesn’t stand up to him and he can trust her to raise their daughter the way he sees fit.) There’s a hint of some trauma in his childhood that isn’t really explored. Either way, it’s dramatically counterproductive to humanize or psychologize him, though Bang at least tries to bring some shade to an utterly despicable character; he portrays her as soft-spoken, allowing her height and weight to pose an implicit threat against the petite, reed-thin Duff. The morality of getting rid of John Paul is never really in question – the viewer would be happy to do it themselves if it happened – just the practicalities of how to do it and how to get rid of it.
Of course, murder isn’t right, although it offers comic possibilities that a more rational approach to Grace’s situation – say, therapy leading to a divorce – wouldn’t. Even so, it’s essential to maintain the audience’s sympathy for the people who attempt murder, and Horgan, his writers, and the cast do this expertly, not only with John Paul’s unrelenting awfulness—a common enough trick that makes the antagonistic victim less sympathetic than his protagonist attacker—but the siblings’ with descriptions that, while not flawless, are versatile, recognizably human, and ultimately come from a place of love.
The story unfolds along two tracks that eventually connect, one leading to the death of John Paul and the other in the immediate aftermath, each with its own mysteries and thrills. The latter timeline adds another opposing family group, the Claffins, half-brothers Thomas (Brian Gleeson) and Matt (Darryl McCormack). Thomas, whose bedridden wife is in labor, runs their late father’s insurance business, which holds John Paul’s policy, and faces a devastatingly huge claim; to avoid bankruptcy, he frantically tries to prove that the insured was murdered. Matt, recently returned from London, is recruited to help her prove it, which is further complicated by the fact that Matt and Becka have started seeing each other. They are relatively innocent characters because they know less for longer, and their genuinely romantic story gives the audience something less repulsive.
The siblings’ individual plots, the tensions within the family and the often farcical failures of their attempts to kill John Paul – not without serious collateral damage that felt serious – keep things rolling throughout the series. Mysteries are kept mysterious: Who ultimately murdered JP (and there are other possibilities besides the Garvey girls), if anyone actually did? And will the Claffins, spawning their own compassion, perish?
However, the conclusion is not unpredictable, and actually more satisfying. “Bad Sisters” is a dark comedy with dramatic moments, but it’s a comedy nonetheless. Its characters – except for the dead – strive for the light, and the talented cast makes them easy to love. Unlike John Paul, who does everything to separate Grace from her siblings, you are happy when they are together. And despite what pleasures the story brings – despite the murder plot and the violent relationship, it is meant to be enjoyable – the series is sensually luxurious, from the brash voices to the unpredictable song choices (al. Ralph Stanley to the Velvet Underground for Melanie) usually in a beautiful setting. Much of it takes place on the coast, overlooking the Irish Sea, including key scenes shot at the rocky swimming spot at Forty Foot in Sandycove, below the Martello Tower where James Joyce stayed and “Ulysses” opens. No one mentions it because the characters only go there to swim, but I thought you might want to know.
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