Like any good comedy, Sharon Horgan’s new show, Bad Sisters, begins with a funeral. A priest delivers a eulogy for the deceased, John Paul (Claes Bang), as his wife, Grace (Anne-Marie Duff), sobs in her pew and comforts their daughter. Standing with Grace—but looking somewhat less mournful—are her four sisters: Eva (Horgan), the oldest who became a motherly figure to the rest after their parents died; Ursula (Eva Birthistle), the sensible nurse with a devoted husband and kids who is secretly having an affair; scrappy Bibi (Sarah Greene), whose eyepatch portends a grisly backstory; and Becka (Eve Hewson), the free-spirited youngest sister looking to prove she can be responsible, too. At the wake, a fellow guest shares his condolences with Eva, who says that she’s just glad the suffering is over. “Was he ill?” the guest asks, surprised. “No,” she replies.
So begins the twisted tale of toxic masculinity, deep family ties, and bloodthirsty revenge that unfolds across two timelines. In the past, the sisters plot to murder the odious John Paul, whose abuse involves not only ritually humiliating Grace, but attempting to destroy each of the other sisters’ lives, too; while in the present, the sisters try to cover up the mysterious way that they eventually saw John Paul off, and fend off the scrutiny of two bumbling brothers determined to invalidate the deceased’s life insurance policy. It’s a twisty, acid-laced comic confection that could only have come from the mind of Horgan, whose 2000s cult hit Pulling, breakout show Catastrophe with Rob Delaney, and Sarah Jessica Parker-starring HBO series Divorce made her one of the most in-demand offbeat comedy writers out there. (Bad Sisters is the first show Horgan is debuting on Apple TV+, with whom she signed a first-look deal last year.)
Based on the Belgian comedy The Out-Laws, the show is Horgan’s first adaptation—but by moving it to her native Ireland, more specifically the suburbs of Dublin, she was able to give the original’s ferociously funny material her own, distinctive bite. “In terms of the dynamic of an Irish family, I think the best thing I could do was just stick to the truth of it,” says Horgan, noting that she drew on her own experiences growing up in a sprawling family to inform the nuances of the sibling relationships. (That said, there were no murders in the immediate Horgan family that she knows of, she’s quick to point out.) Debuting last month, the fifth episode of Bad Sisters screened this week (there will be 10 in total, meaning we’re halfway through the sisters’ dastardly journey) in which we witness yet another foiled attempt to get rid of John Paul.
Is Horgan pleased with the show’s reception so far? “God, it’s such a relief when you put something out and it feels like people get it,” she says cheerily. “There’s so much waiting in the lead-up to it, and all you can hope for is a reaction like that. It’s really, really fulfilling.”
Here, Horgan tells Vogue about the challenges of adapting Bad Sisters for an Irish setting, the real-life experiences that informed John Paul’s most enraging moments, and the secret to the ensemble cast’s electric chemistry.
Vogue: First of all, how did you come across the original Belgian show, and what made you feel like you could put your own spin on it?
Sharon Horgan: It began with Jay Hunt at Apple. She was my boss at Channel 4, and we made Catastrophe together. So when I finished with that, I think she knew I was looking for something to connect with in the same way. It’s hard, when you make a show that you love for five years, like Catastrophe, to just jump into something else, so I was just making some films and doing some acting and waiting for the big idea. Jay took me out for lunch and she said, “Look, I’ve got something I want to send you, but it’s an adaptation.” At first I said no, because I’ve been sent a lot of adaptations over the years and it just never really appealed to me, but she said, “Just have a look and see what you think.” I watched just one episode and I emailed her and said, “Yeah, I’m interested.” It’s such an odd premise, and such a departure from anything I’d done before, but I kind of felt like I could do it in my way. Then, of course, we still had to convince everyone that it was the right thing to do, because there are a lot of good ideas that never actually come to fruition. We did a writer’s room and it just all came together.
Were there any aspects of Belgian culture or their sense of humor that you felt translated neatly to an Irish setting?
Yes and no, really. There was a lot about it where I thought, that’s not gonna work, because the original was quite crazy. There were Chinese mafia involved, and people ended up in dog food—it was pretty mad. What I really was drawn to was the sisters, this huge family. I come from a family of five as well, and for me, that suited the Irish setting, because everyone I knew in Ireland came from these giant families—certainly in my generation. The character of John Paul in the original was a moralizing man as well, and I liked the idea of a man from that generation hiding behind religion…that religion could be the thing that allowed him to feel like he had a kind of moral head start on the sisters and that it was an excuse, to himself and to the world, for a lot of his behavior. That suited the Irish setting as well. Oh, and when I watched the Belgian one, there were a lot of bungalows, like Ireland. [Laughs.]
This is the first comedy you’ve made set in Ireland, right? With Apple TV+ having such a global audience, were there any particular aspects of Irish culture you were keen to include?
Yes, although I feel like there’s a lot in it that’s quite universal. It kind of has to be if you’re making a show for a streamer, because it goes out globally straight away. When I made Catastrophe, Rob and I would always think of our American audience, but not much beyond that. We’d say, “Oh, we better not use that word, it’s a bit too localized, or too much of a London joke.” Knowing that the Belgian show had worked in that sense helped. I thought if I just dig into the truth of it, then people will get it. I think the best way to connect with audiences is always just to be truthful. So even though it was this quite OTT premise, I thought if I grounded it in the reality of, What would happen if you decided to kill a man?, then everyone else will believe it, you know?
When it came to casting the sisters, what were some of the shared qualities—and key differences—that you were looking for?
I mean, obviously I cast people who I hugely admire in terms of their acting chops, and also people who I felt could do the comedy with the drama, because I felt that was really, really important here. I don’t think it would have worked if it had been po-faced in any way. So what attracted me to them first was how good they all are at their jobs. But I also thought, if I pick people that I think I’d get on with, then that’s the lynchpin, really. The chemistry will work if we all do really get on. So it was partly a process of casting people that I thought could be really good fun to hang out with. [Laughs.] But I do think that’s important on a long shoot, and something that has become more and more important to me over the years—it shouldn’t feel like a trial, or like you’re just getting through this. These projects take up a huge amount of time. We spent the first part of our rehearsal period just hanging out and talking with our director for the first three episodes, Dearbhla Walsh, and I think that connected us even more, so that when we started filming, we already had that bond and it felt very, very easy from the off.
The character of John Paul provokes quite a visceral reaction, as I think all of us have been around men who behave like that at some point in our lives and found it infuriating. Were you mining any of your own personal experiences when you were fleshing out the character?
I mean, it was kind of a mixture, because there was this great character to start off with in the Belgian original. But I suppose that anyone who attempts an adaptation of anything thinks, How do I make it my own? There were elements of what I’d experienced or come across in my life with regards to… I know it’s a phrase that’s overused, but toxic masculinity. There’s definitely a little element of someone I shared a house with years ago in there. And then some other TV villains that I’d watched and felt were iconic in a certain way. I also was doing research and reading about that personality type and figuring out my own rules for how he should be. The idea of casting an attractive man in that role was very much a conscious decision on my part, because I felt like I wanted the audience to see what Grace had been attracted to back in the day, but I also wanted to make sure that he didn’t have a sort of dangerous sex appeal—I wanted him to be a kind of clown. For him to be the kind of man who knew his own limitations, and because of that was angry at the world, angry that he couldn’t make the sisters appreciate or respect him, and therefore he has to drag them down, or attempt to. He was incredibly good fun to write. But at the same time, as the series progressed, he had to become the kind of character where you could see how dangerous he could be if he wasn’t stopped, and I think that was important. Because if you’re gonna watch four women try and kill someone over and over, you have to be on their team; you have to want that to happen. And you know, he’s got a young daughter, so you’re taking a child’s father away.
You mentioned the way in which religion can act as a kind of smoke screen for people to behave badly. Was that something you observed growing up in Ireland that you wanted to bring to the show?
It’s about highlighting the hypocrisy of religion, I suppose. I mean, the idea of being spiritual is a lovely thing, but the idea of someone hiding behind religion is something else entirely. And I did grow up around it; I was taught by nuns and went to church every week. Not necessarily in my generation, but with the generation before, what the church said went, and you just followed it blindly. We begin the series with the priest waxing lyrical about John Paul’s great attributes, and I liked this idea of someone who was an angel in the street but a devil at home. The idea that being a religious man can give you a sort of veneer that makes you untouchable…and I guess that’s why he could get away with it for so long, or why in general, people get away with it for so long. I feel like there are huge parallels today, with these religious old white men telling people how to live their lives, but having these seedy lives themselves behind closed doors. It feels like a real and relevant thing.
How has it been seeing everyone’s responses to the show? How plugged in are you to it?
I’m pretty plugged in, and I’m really delighted, even though I don’t like to read reviews. I mean, that’s not what I’ve always been like. In my early days making shows, I would pore over everything, including any old shit online. I’d go into comedy chatrooms and just kind of watch, which is a terrible thing to do! [Laughs.] No matter how positive it is, you find the one small negative thing and you obsess on that. So now I just read the headlines in the reports I get sent, and yeah, it seems like it’s been great, and that people are really along for the ride. The thing I was most scared about was nailing the tone, and making sure that the balance of silliness and trauma was correct, otherwise it would have been a real dog’s dinner. It should be loose and funny, but also show the more brutal sides of what it is to live in an abusive relationship, and those two tones seem to have complemented each other somehow. That’s a big relief.