‘Bad Sisters’ Review: Sharon Horgan’s Murder Mystery Is a Sharp Family Story Spread a Little Thin

A group of sisters have to keep lies big and little under wraps in this Apple TV+ dramedy of errors.
Bad Sisters Garvey Girls
"Bad Sisters"
Natalie Seery

The thing that makes “Bad Sisters” so tricky is that the Garvey family alone could fuel multiple seasons. The collection of sisters at the heart of the newest Apple TV+ drama are all distinct women with their own lives, bound by more than just hatred for a loathsome man.

The opening hour of “Bad Sisters” introduces us to them all in clear, efficient fashion. There’s Eva (Sharon Horgan), the confident businesswoman who’s served as the mother figure to the rest since the death of their parents. Ursula (Eva Birthistle) is raising her own kids while juggling a hospital job and various other outside interests. Though many of them are resolute and inclined toward defending the group, Bibi (Sarah Greene) is the Garvey sister who most follows both those instincts. Becka (Eve Hewson) is the youngest, with a freewheeling life only partly taken up by her massage practice.

This quartet feels like they’re losing their fifth sister Grace (Anne-Marie Duff) to the emotional leech that is John Paul (Claes Bang), her husband and biggest bully. “Bad Sisters” begins with him lying dead, stiff in a casket. The remainder of the ten-episode season is devoted to two major questions: How did he end up there and what does the truth behind his death mean for the rest of the Garveys?

So begins a roller-coaster collection of mishaps, cover-ups, and tense family dinners playing out in two parallel timelines. One follows the twisting path to JP’s demise, as the other four Garvey sisters, one by one, come to the realization that all their lives would be better if he were simply…taken care of. Toggling back and forth like scenes in a cosmic viewfinder, the After side of the equation becomes even more complicated with the arrival of brothers Thomas (Brendan Gleeson) and Matt (Daryl McCormack), who are working to save their own family’s insurance firm. If they can determine that JP died as a result of foul play, his policy doesn’t kick in and Claffin and Sons stays solvent.

Bad Sisters Eva JP
“Bad Sisters”Apple TV+

It’s early on that Horgan — as both series creator and co-adapter of “Clan,” which premiered on Belgian TV roughly a decade ago — helps draws these distinct family lines. It’s the “Garvey Girls” vs. the world, only on battlegrounds that shift from episode to episode. If there’s anything that unites the Garveys and Claffins, sets of siblings on opposite sides of a mysterious death, it’s that each person has their own complicated way of showing their love, especially when much of it has to come shrouded in secrecy.

It helps that the Garveys exist in stark opposition to JP, who Bang keeps on a razor’s edge between being an aggressively awful human and being a cartoonish misanthrope. Bang slides dangerously easily into the skin of an everyday emotional terrorist, one who uses an internalized misogyny to fuel his day-ruining encounters with family and coworkers and strangers alike. JP arrives in this story as an eminently punchable face. If there’s a main justification for having this season play out over ten episodes, it’s making the audience feel his each new aggression as a step toward the boiling point the four Garvey sisters arrive at: The world as a whole would benefit from him no longer existing in it.

As meticulous a case as “Bad Sisters” makes, it does so while taking a circular path. Once there’s enough evidence that the Garveys might be at least a little justified in offing JP, the show kicks off a looping cycle of planning and foiling and unintended consequences that makes up a big chunk of the season. Each of those false starts to the main murder plot in turn says something about one of the sisters (or of Thomas and Matt retracing their steps after the fact). But after a while, JP’s odiousness becomes something both the sisters and the show is stuck with. There’s a sense of diminishing returns the farther in deep they find themselves.

Bad Sisters Christmas
“Bad Sisters”Natalie Seery

Structuring the story in parallels also traps “Bad Sisters” into having to follow along tracks that are a little too tidy in their construction at times. There are moments when it’s clear that character details are being introduced purely as a setup for a future payoff/explanation (though the show is often able to serve both purposes at once). The dark comedy hides it sometimes (this show does some of its best work with unexpected uses for food and drink) but there’s an overall cleverness in both the show’s writing and the Claffins’ amateur detective efforts that feels like the show making thematic or plot connections more often out of convenience or obligation.

Over time, keeping that tightrope taught for the full run — particularly in light of what the show chooses to withhold — leads to “Bad Sisters” feeling like a sharp six- or eight-episode season stretched to ten. The longer that “Bad Sisters” has to keep making JP either stay alive or stay awful, the further it pulls attention from where things truly thrive here. Horgan and the rest of the series’ writers have a keen sense of these sisters, both in what drives them and what confounds them. By season’s end, these five are defined by instinct and choices, rather than solely by their job or where they fall in the family order. Even in scenes when the group is stunned into silence, as a unit, they’re able to say plenty with simple gestures and fleeting eye contact. There’s as much obvious, instant family chemistry among them as there is between each of the Garveys and their respective partners.

It’s a bar that the murder-mystery questions the show is toying with can’t quite clear. Aside from a few minor red herrings, “Bad Sisters” sets a trajectory and sticks to it for much of the run. As a dramedy of errors, “Bad Sisters” doesn’t always feel like the freshest or most elegant execution. But as a family showcase, the engine is there to power this show through an ordeal of any length.

Grade: B

The first two episodes of “Bad Sisters” are now available to stream on Apple TV+. New episodes will premiere every Friday, through October 14.

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