They had me with the opening credits. The latest, and most delicious, Apple TV+ original series Bad Sisters — an Ireland-set remake of the Belgian dark comedy Clan — starts out with a Rube Goldberg machine, all hatchets and eyeballs and blessedly impractical machinations, all set to PJ Harvey singing Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire. Harvey’s version is fittingly more vicious, less solemn, turning Cohen’s salvation song into a shopping-list inventory of murder-y ideas: “Who by barbiturate?” “Who by slow decay?” “Who by powder?”
As shopping lists go, the Garvey sisters — the five protagonists of this crackling series — are likely to pick up a bit of everything.
The series, adapted by the magnificent Sharon Horgan, is about four sisters banding together to kill their brother-in-law: the man married to the fifth sister. We start the show with the object of their repulsion, JP, not only dead but sporting an ungentlemanly erection in his coffin. Yet Bad Sisters doesn’t tell us how he was killed, instead pinging and ponging between two timelines: the present-day investigation into JP’s death, and the recent stabs the Garvey sisters have taken at his life.
These stabs are numerous. Horgan, playing eldest Garvey sister Eva, compares their work to Wile E Coyote’s futile attempts to capture the Roadrunner, but I was reminded more directly of A Fish Called Wanda, where Michael Palin keeps trying to kill an old lady but — much to his pet-loving anguish — ends up offing her little dogs instead. That demented spirit runs through this wild comedy as the sisters keep trying, and failing, to kill their vile brother-in-law.
That monster is played by Claes Bang (the silken Dracula on Netflix) who brings such excessive smarminess — and yet a strange, twinkly charm — to the part that the viewer soon sees eye-to-eye with the sisters. The series is being compared with Big Little Lies (whose first season hinged on the clever gimmick of investigation and flashback where we weren’t told the identity of killer or even victim) but I’d say Horgan and team are cribbing more from Agatha Christie’s handbook by taking turns to show us just how loathsome JP is as he nastily makes each sister a suspect by racking up a veritable Orient Express’s worth of demerits.
This may have turned repetitive in lesser hands, but Horgan — creator of Catastrophe, Divorce, Pulling and Shining Vale — writes fantastic women with sharp tongues and memorable turns of phrase, and the Garvey sisters are a particularly smashing lot: there’s her own Eva, who mothers the others while sharing an office with JP; there’s Ursula (Eva Birthistle), middle sister and a nurse who is having an affair; there’s Bibi (Sarah Greene), an eyepatch-wearing lesbian who never holsters her temper; there’s Becka (Eve Hewson), the impetuous baby of the bunch; and then there’s Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) who happens to be married to (and blinded by) JP, her handsome devil.
It’s a top cast. Duff is heartbreaking as the gaslit wife frequently looking the other way, Greene, all pluck and inscrutability, steals most scenes she’s in, and Hewson (who was also great in Netflix miniseries The Luminaries) is an absolute delight as the excitable, bad-boyfriend prone Baby Becka. Horgan cedes the madness to her peers by taking the less extreme — but no less fascinating — mother-hen character.
Meanwhile, there are two frequently clueless insurance agents, Thomas Clafflin (played by Brian Gleeson, the unforgettably scuzzy lead in Frank Of Ireland) and his half-brother Matthew (Daryl McCormack), clutching at straws to try desperately to prove JPs death wasn’t an accident — not because of any crusading sense of justice, but because they can’t afford to pay out the insurance premium. So even the antagonists aren’t efficient or ruthless or savage. Everybody is ultimately a fool — except the foe.
Directed by Dearbhla Walsh, Josephine Bornebusch and Rebecca Gatward, Bad Sisters is a gorgeous looking series, one that gives us a taste of lovely Dublin and cinematically goes expansive with wide-shots and scale to show us, from above, cars changing their mind mid-drive and fatal accidents waiting to happen. Every episode ends dutifully with a cliffhanger, but this is a show coasting almost entirely on whimsy. In Bad Sisters, characters choke on eyeballs and are blinded by Mother Mary hood ornaments.
The soundtrack is unabashedly on the nose, full of bloody violent sinister songs, and I kept thinking of Norma Tanega’s hypnotic You’re Dead (the theme-song from the sublime Disney+ Hotstar comedy What We Do In The Shadows) until — surprise, surprise — that song showed up during the end-credits of a particularly shocking episode. Perfect.
One quibble I have is that JP, as a character, is too abhorrent. Even someone like Grace would notice how relentlessly nasty he is to her sisters and her daughter, yet Bang’s perfectly pitched, restrained performance keeps JP from turning into a cartoon villain. The character has to be a metaphor, a symbol standing-in for the slimiest relatives we may have met, and the show offers catharsis by allowing us to picture them dying in varied and painful ways.
At one point, a friend of Eva’s chides her for not taking a compliment. “Why do you always do that?” he demands. “Why do you turn everything into a joke? What if I was about to say… something profound?” She laughs her big glorious laugh. The women Horgan usually plays may admittedly not be the best at taking compliments, but a greater truth may be that people aren’t often likely to say anything profound. A Sharon Horgan joke, on the other hand, can kill.
Streaming tip of the week:
The Sound Of 007 (Amazon Prime Video) is a solid documentary about the music — the unforgettable theme tune and the songs — that have propelled the James Bond franchise for 60 years. It’s hard not to marvel at the sheer impact. Without the music, Bond would be just another tourist.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about the killing of critics. It is now in theatres.