Biweekly Binge: Four Sisters and a Funeral
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
It’s not often that a series begins with a post-mortem priapism. A dead body rests in a coffin and the widow—Anne-Marie Duff as Grace Williams—discovers that her deceased husband has a dead boner. She tries to cover them up with flowers, they don’t work, and she then tries to strategically place a framed family photograph on it, as if the frame is hanging off John Paul Williams’s (Claes Bang) groin which only makes it more conspicuous. It also becomes symbolic of their marriage, an abusive one where Grace is repeatedly gaslit. Grace Williams is the second of Garvey sisters, preceded by Eva Garvey (Sharon Horgan who also developed the show with Dave Finkel and Brett Baer, adapting it from Flemish series Clan) and followed by Ursula Flynn (Eva Birthistle), Bibi Garvey (Sarah Greene) and the youngest and baby of the family of sisters, Becka Garvey (Eve Hewson). The series (on Apple+) is set in Ireland and follows the five sisters as John Paul’s death is suspicious to a couple of insurance men who cannot afford to pay the claim and are bent on proving that one or more of the sisters conspired and committed murder.
Bad Sisters is funny and scathing, it leaves us suspecting every sister in turn and has us develop an empathy for each one of them. Not just the sisters but also for the two insurance men—Thomas Claffin (Brian Gleeson) and Matt Claffin (Daryl McCormack), half-brothers with subtle interracial humour added for good measure. A set of families that has always struggled and is now struggling in their alloyed state. Thomas’s home is office and office is home with his pregnant wife bedridden upstairs. The sisters’ family climbed the social ladder with Eva playing the parent after their own passed away and the bond shared by the sisters is almost prickly sweet. Over the years they’ve also developed a mutual hatred for the prick himself—John Paul—for everything that he is—sexist, misogynist, hateful, vengeful, petty and dangerous. Another term for dead boner is angel lust, only he’s all lust and other vices, and no angel. It’s not just the women who hate him. Almost anyone who crosses his path is left with an indelible mark of distaste for him if not full-blown animosity.
The series is black comedy, but it is dark in its closer to real life familial affectations rather than at the plot level, neither in look nor in treatment. You get deep focus closeup shots and mostly in daylight, the characters in our faces, their confused and worried expression matching ours. The claustrophobia of Thomas’s office reflects his and Matt’s precarious state and Eva’s sprawling home where she lives alone reflects the wholesomeness of the sisters’ collective love and care for each other. It is where they convene. Their flaws stretch their characters out in delicious ways and expectedly, their private life bleeds into the John Paul affair. Eva has had a miscarriage and is childfree but not willingly, a spinster who is reminded of her anguish by her own sisters in moments of weakness. Ursula is having an extramarital affair while Bibi, a lesbian with a wife and son, has her own blinding history with John Paul. Becka, 29 and youngest, is an adult but suspended in the carelessness of youth, intelligent and capable of empathy but just as capable of causing hurt.
The series flips back and forth in time, weeks before John Paul’s death and the weeks after, visually represented as if rolling through a camera photo reel. The series gives its women the latitude to try, fail and succeed and at the same time lays bare how easily even the strongest among them are gaslit even in everyday banalities. Eva and John Paul are also colleagues at work, and he constantly works to undermine her. Becka is trying to get her life in order and all John Paul wants is to watch everyone around him burn. The flashback storyline shows us how the events gradually push each sister off the edge until they decide to take no prisoners of guilt. They decide to act, and they fail spectacularly and laughably.
The series is well aware that it is making us laugh at four women who are going through mental, emotional and physical harassment, but the gags work, the dialogs are sharp, and the wit seldom misses its target. It’s that rare show from the West that marries the cushioning familiarity of a Korean drama of joyful family going through a roller-coaster of emotions (in a series revolving around sisters we also get a strong brotherhood storyline) with an easy ability to switch between genres—it's a soap, it’s a murder mystery, it’s a comedy and it’s also drama.