University College Dublin, Ireland
by Jorie Lagerwey. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
(Apple TV 2022 -)
Bad Sisters (Apple TV+ 2022), is the story of five Garvey sisters plotting and repeatedly attempting the murder of one of their evil husbands. It is a delightfully dark family melodrama featuring the absolutely delicious, soapy villainy of Claes Bang’s performance as John Paul Williams, “the Prick”, and ultimate murder victim. Writer/producer/actor Sharon Horgan and the rest of the sisters, Eva Birthistle, Anne-Marie Duff, Sarah Greene, and Eve Hewson, constitute the excellent central ensemble and offer a still-rare view of female friendship without meanness or competition (albeit with a healthy dose of family bickering). While the show is actually about the sisters’ murderous shenanigans and their complicated, enduring love for each other, the proper foil is essential to their cohesiveness and the viewer’s desire to root for them. Bang’s performance relies on the relatively understated but constant drip of contempt oozing from his every word alongside his preposterously evil manipulations of everyone in the family and community. His performance is reminiscent Craig Montgomery, played by Hunt Block from 2000-2010, the lead villain from the daily American soap As the World Turns (CBS 1956-2010). Block’s was the epitome of an underrated performance style that foregrounds a winking zeal, inviting viewers’ outsized and often embodied reactions of disgust, shock, or laughter. Prestige TV needs less of the shouty, entitled White male villains encountered in the likes of Succession (HBO 2018- ) or Billions (Showtime 2016- ) and more of this playful, gag-inducing but simultaneously hand-clapping male villainy. Alas, that kind of writing and performing seems to take a level of self-awareness not often on display in those kind of massive budget dramas.
Professional distance aside, this reviewer loved this show. It looks beautiful, it has a great title sequence, the writing is quick and witty with strong performances to support it, but, more than anything else, it is the tone that appeals. The recognition that there is delight to be found in the macabre is hardly ground-breaking, but it is highly watchable (and fun). Since this is a critical review, however, it is also important to highlight how the show mobilised an array of othered and non-normative identities to support, and perhaps to hide or distract from, its Whiteness.
Casting practices like those on Bad Sisters are often overlooked in part because they have become so common. The show uses blindcasting and minor characters to accomplish what we might call difference-washing. Difference-washing happens when stories about normative folks—those who fit dominant categories of race, class, binary gender, sexuality, ability, etc—sprinkle the background of their stories with less normative folks. In theory this is well-meaning representation created by the often politically left-leaning TV industries in places like Ireland, the US, and the UK. But this version of representation-by-visibility is so invisible, it does more work to make the central characters look like good people than it does to make underrepresented groups the subjects of more varied, complex, and complete characterisations.
Bad Sisters features a plethora of difference-washed characters: a White actor with Down’s syndrome (Conor O’Donnell) playing one of the sisters’ sons; Irish-Pakistani actress Yasmine Akram, who plays one of the sisters’ wives, completes a lesbian married couple who are “just like” all the other married sisters, and a Black actor (Jake Farmer) plays their young son. Moroccan-French actor Assaad Bouab plays one of the sisters’ colleague and friend. His homosexuality is a plot point, but serves only as character development for Eva (Sharon Horgan), rather than to develop his own story. This list is not an exercise in “outing” or spotting folks who are non-White or “White and”. Rather it is an exercise in noticing that each of these characters operates exclusively in-relation-to a White, neurotypical central character. I have included the young actor with Down’s syndrome on this list not to equate race, ethnicity, and neurodivergence, but rather to highlight the centrality and dominance of normative Whiteness in the narrative and visual scope of Bad Sisters (and indeed of so much prestige TV). “Difference” is lumped together — the French colleague and one of the sisters are gay, John Paul’s mother seems to have dementia — as a smorgasbord of narratively side-lined window dressing used to add realism to the central characters’ lives, and twenty-first century credibility to creators and distributors.
The show’s fans might baulk at this description and cite Matt Claffin (Daryl McCormack), the mixed-race half-brother to Thomas (Brian Gleeson) who is undoubtedly a central character. He is a love-interest to Becca Garvey (Eve Hewson), and a moral foil to his insurance agent brother. As one of my PhD students pointed out, however, he is easy to cast because he is objectively very handsome (a characteristic exploited by his role as the sex worker who helps Emma Thompson’s character explore her post-menopausal sexuality in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022) (incidentally, another “plastic” role)). While that may sound like a trivial comment, I would argue that physical beauty is another box non-White actors have to tick more often than White actors in order to get cast (see Bridgerton [Netflix 2020- ], for example). Undoubtedly, adhering to dominant beauty standards is an advantage for White actors, especially women, as well; but it is not necessarily a requirement.
McCormack’s casting and characterization is an example of what Kristen Warner describes as a trend in which “diversity became synonymous with the quantity of difference rather than with the dimensionality of those performances” or characterizations (2017: np). Warner (2015, 2017) situates what she calls postracial blindcasting and plastic representation in the context of White-dominated television industries attempting to illustrate that racism and discrimination in casting are things of the past. The problem, Warner argues, is that these roles were still created and written by and for White people, therefore appealing to a supposedly universal experience. But the problem with universal experiences being written and curated almost entirely by White people means that in fact White experience and White culture are reproduced as “universal.” That process also automatically excludes any specificity of culture or experience for the blindcast or plastic characters. In Bad Sisters, because McCormack plays the brother of a White actor, his difference is at least acknowledged in a few lines of dialogue explaining that he had a different mother and was only in the family home every other weekend. But any exclusion he feels from the Claffin family and business is explained away as being the product of a blended family. The possibility of race playing a meaningful role in his experience of a White family, or indeed of growing up in Ireland, is never mentioned. In this way, the character continues the trend of Black and mixed-race characters that Zélie Asava describes in Irish cinema. Still, she writes, “the majority of them [films featuring Black characters] whitewash over the problems of assimilation by refusing to represent the black Irish as an established community, and by framing multiculturalism and racism as new to the nation” (Asava 2013: 184). Having skipped over any notion of racism altogether, Bad Sisters presents any potential problems of assimilation as a non-issue for Matt’s character or for any of the more minor non-normative characters. Being assimilated into or subsumed by a White family incorporates all these modes of difference into the dominant norm and presents them as “solved”, and thus not in need of representation or discussion.
When teaching classes about race in contemporary television, I sometimes get responses like “sure, but we’re in Ireland.” I take these comments to mean that sure, I can see what you’re saying and how it might matter in the US or even the UK, but we don’t have racism in Ireland. That of course is not true, but it is also important to situate Bad Sisters in its appropriate international context. Being written and produced by an Irish woman (Horgan), performed by mostly Irish actors, set and shot in Dublin and Wicklow make it easily identified as Irish. But, produced by Sharon Horgan’s Merman and US-based Disney Television Studios’ ABC Signature, distributed by Apple TV+ (available in over 100 countries according to Apple’s website), and based on Belgian format, the show is undeniably conceived as a transatlantic or even global product. As I have argued elsewhere, that kind of transatlantic prestige TV is designed to appeal to the middle-class audiences who can afford Apple TV+, audiences that, correctly or not, TV industries still imagine as mostly White. That means we can place Bad Sisters, almost despite its Irishness, in the context of the dominant English language TV industries of the US and UK, where its difference washing fits very comfortably alongside an incidental deaf character on Ginny and Georgia (Netflix 2021- ), a minor character with Downs syndrome on Never Have I Ever (Netflix 2020-), and plastic representations on shows like Surface (Apple TV+ 2022- ) or Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu 2020). Nonetheless, a single show is not responsible for an industry trend, and Bad Sisters is unquestionably good fun to watch.
 Succession is marketed, especially to awarding bodies, as a comedy, but no one will ever convince me it is anything but a family melodrama.
 I capitalise White and Whiteness in all my writing to call attention to the fact that White is a racial category and not a norm against which other racial or ethnic identities are differentiated with a capital letter. In doing so, I follow the style guide of The Washington Post, changed in the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Asava, Zélie. (2013). The Black Irish Onscreen. Oxford: Peter Lang.
Warner, Kristen. (2015). The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting. New York: Routledge.
_____ . (2017). “Plastic Representation.” Film Quarterly 71 (2). https://filmquarterly.org/