In the first scene of Bad Sisters’ first episode, aptly titled “The Prick,” Grace Williams (Anne-Marie Duff) weeps softly, staring out the window, before blowing her nose in a giant honk. She turns to smooth back the hair of her dead husband, lying peacefully in his coffin, before realizing he has a post-mortem erection. In these 60 seconds, Bad Sisters tells you exactly what you’re in for: a dark story that isn’t afraid to make you laugh.
It’s what you would expect from Sharon Horgan, who executive produced, created, and stars in the show. With series like Pulling, Catastrophe, Motherland, and Divorce, Horgan established herself as a distinct comedic voice, a creator of spiky, complex female characters with a real gift for building worlds that feel familiar but also hyperspecific. Bad Sisters, the first release of her first-look deal with Apple, is no exception.
Horgan stars as Eva, sister to Grace. In fact, there are five Garvey sisters: Eva, Grace, Bibi (Sarah Greene), Ursula (Eva Birthistle), and Becka (Eve Hewson), and Eva has been their matriarch ever since their parents’ untimely deaths in a car accident. The series doesn’t waste a lot of time on exposition; it’s off and running quickly, and it expects you to keep up. But even so, each of the sisters is brought to life by sharp writing and strong performances, and you grasp quickly who they are and what they’re all about.
But back to the dead guy. Set in Ireland, the series opens at the funeral of John Paul Williams (Claes Bang), Grace’s husband. We don’t know how he died, although several characters indicate that it was a gruesome way to go. And then, as the sisters sit side by side in the pew, Bibi leans over to the crying Becka and says, “You don’t have to pretend anymore.”
Bad Sisters is a murder mystery, and the mystery is two-fold: How did John Paul die? And who killed him? The story is told both in the present (the aftermath of his death as his life-insurance agents interview the sisters to try to prove malicious intent to avoid a large payout) and in the six months leading up to his death (as each of Grace’s four sisters becomes convinced this toxic man has got to go).
What’s so bad about JP? In the first flashback, it’s honestly impressive how efficiently the show establishes him as an asshole. In just a few lines over Christmas dinner, he covers racism, misogyny, and fat-shaming. But as we move forward, we see that this isn’t your sister’s textbook obnoxious boyfriend. John Paul is a calculated, prolonged abuser, hellbent on controlling his wife and daughter and driving a wedge between them and their strong sisterhood. He gaslights, sabotages, demeans, and violates them every chance he gets, and Claes Bang infuses John Paul with such an identifiable monstrosity that any time he’s onscreen, we get a sick feeling in our stomachs. What low will this creep stoop to next?
Each sister has lost something at the hands of JP, but they’re most worried about the ways in which he’s sucking the life from Grace. It’s Bibi who cracks first, recruiting Eva to “give nature a helping hand” and engineer an accidental death for their brother-in-law. Alas, these women are not skilled murderers, and their attempts do not always unfold how they planned. At one point, someone jokes that they’d have an easier time killing the Roadrunner, and it’s a frustration the viewer comes to share: As the sisters go in circles on how to get rid of JP, there’s an element of, “Can this guy just die already?”
Because we know he does eventually die, the tension in the show comes from the insurance agents, a pair of brothers, and their desperation to unearth what really happened to JP (although, honestly, the man is so vile that there is a distinct possibility that someone besides the sisters finished the job). The younger brother, Matt (Daryl McCormack), falls for the youngest sister, Becka, before they each know who the other is. It’s one of the few moments in the show that made us narrow our eyes. One coincidence to bring Matt and Becka together is permissible, but two just feels lazy.
Quibbles aside, the show is a rush of dark wit and fierce familial love. Horgan is the second eldest of five children herself, and there is a familiarity to the way the sisters fight and protect and criticize and cherish each other. They break each other apart and then stoop to pick up the pieces all in the same scene. The show doesn’t shy away from its name, committing to demonstrating the ways in which the sisters are “bad”—but there’s never a moment you aren’t on their side.