How Sharon Horgan Shaped a Monstrous Brother-in-Law
“Bad Sisters,” now streaming on Apple TV+, opens with the funeral of John Paul Williams. The show’s 10 hourlong episodes unfurl how he died, and whether his four sisters-in-law had a hand in that death.
We soon discover that John Paul had long emotionally abused his wife and terrorized her sisters. The show — created by Sharon Horgan, Dave Finkel and Brett Baer — tells “a serious story about the damage that ripples outward from one angry and devious man,” Mike Hale wrote in his review for The New York Times.
But, like Horgan’s previous show “Catastrophe,” “Bad Sisters” is also darkly funny. It’s adapted from the Belgian show “Clan,” which aired as “The Out-Laws” on British television in 2016. Horgan found the setup of four sisters trying (and failing) to kill their brother-in-law “inherently comical,” she said in a recent video interview, and she also related to the sisters’ strong ties, describing her own four siblings as having her back “no matter what.”
Horgan — who also stars as the eldest sister, Eva — changed several aspects of the Belgian original: She cut the slapstick humor, brought down the collateral death count, fleshed out the sisters’ back stories and moved the story to Ireland.
She also adapted the character of John Paul, played by Claes Bang, in several ways. To shape him into a fascinatingly horrible — and familiar — villain, Horgan drew on varied references from other TV shows, the Roman Catholic church and contemporary politics.
Jean-Claude, from ‘Clan’
In “Clan,” the dead brother-in-law is Jean-Claude Delcorps, played by Dirk Roofthooft. Horgan kept the sisters’ nickname for their brother-in-law: It’s “The Prick,” in “Bad Sisters” and “De Kloot” in “Clan,” which have the same connotation, though the Flemish version translates as “a testicle.” She did, however, change the character’s appearance, and thus, the way he navigates the world. In the original, Jean-Claude was “a bit of a gargoyle,” she said, but Bang’s John Paul is debonair and pays a lot of attention to his appearance — he’s what Horgan called “an attractive abuser.”
John Paul is vain and arrogant, but outside of his own home, he’s often embarrassed or dismissed: In one episode we see him furiously trying, and failing, to keep up with his hiking group; throughout the series, he panders to his boss for a promotion while his co-workers talk about how vile he is.
“I don’t know if it’s Shakespearean,” Horgan said, “but the idiot provides relief. I like that he was someone who was incredibly in control and dangerous, but at times, was also an ineffectual person.”
A Scandinavian Coldness
Horgan always knew John Paul wouldn’t be fully Irish, she said, which creates immediate distance between him and the sisters. “You can’t really slot in, if it’s not your nationality,” she said of Irish culture.
She specifically wanted the brother-in-law to be from Scandinavia, she said, so she could integrate the “sort of coldness and a sort of warmness at the same time” associated with that region into the character. Horgan said she wanted “Bad Sisters” to also nod to the gritty crime dramas countries like Denmark and Sweden are known for producing.
Before all the episodes were written, she had cast Bang, a Danish actor, as John Paul. They discussed how to approach the character, and Bang wanted to lean into the character’s coldness, Horgan said.
It proved difficult to find a Danish actress to play John Paul’s mother, Minna, and Horgan cast the Swedish actress Nina Norén in the role. Bang can also speak Swedish, and so John Paul became Swedish. Minna has a straightforwardness about her, reflected in the clean lines and classically Scandinavian design of her home, and how she delivers revelations about John Paul’s childhood.
The Roman Catholic Church
Horgan also made John Paul a strident Roman Catholic, who gives his daughter a pin of a 10-week-old fetus’ feet, the international anti-abortion symbol, before her confirmation.
Growing up in Ireland, the Catholic Church played a large part in Horgan’s life, she said, adding that, historically, people in the church had sometimes performed evil acts under the guise of morality. In recent years, Catholic priests’ widespread child sexual abuse has been revealed in Ireland, as in the United States. In the 20th century, orders of Catholic nuns in Ireland effectively incarcerated women and forced them to perform unpaid labor, in the Magdalene Laundries.
“The church was more important than the individual,” Horgan said of both these atrocities. “The cover-up was more important than the victim.”
She applied this conception of morality to John Paul, who sees himself as a soldier against sin, however hypocritical that may be. In Episode 3, he tricks one of the sisters, who’s having an affair, into sending him an intimate picture, which he then holds as leverage. What the sister is doing is wrong, Horgan said, but John Paul never questions his frequent porn watching or his refusal to have “an emotional relationship with his wife.”
The ‘Dangerous Sexy Man’
Horgan also drew on the TV tradition of “dangerous sexy men,” she said. In the HBO show “Big Little Lies,” Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgard) physically abuses his wife, is disliked by her friends and is eventually killed. He was “very attractive on the outside but also had a sexual danger,” Horgan said, which she also recognized in Don Draper from “Mad Men,” whose toxic version of masculinity Horgan called a “romanticization of control.”
Horgan made John Paul frightening, like these characters, but also ineffectual. “I like the idea of him being, to a certain extent, a street angel and a house devil,” Horgan said. “These men get away with what they get away with because it’s often happening behind closed doors — they’re not walking around with signs on their head exuding danger. It’s always a shock, isn’t it?”
Horgan was also inspired by the characters of Aunt Lydia from “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Cersei Lannister from “Game of Thrones,” she said, in terms of how they command power, and how the temperature changes whenever they walk into a scene. Both “Handmaid’s Tale” and “Game of Thrones” also create moments in which the viewer is encouraged to empathize with Lydia or Cersei. “It makes a character more unnerving,” Horgan said. “You see these occasional moments of humanity, so you’ll forgive them — it’s how abusers operate.”
With John Paul, his presence in a scene instantly introduces danger for the sisters, but we also see him cherish his daughter. “It’s not just a straight-up monster that you have to get away from; it’s far more subtle than that,” Horgan said.
The Republican Party
“I can’t say Trump was an influence,” Horgan said, “but he was so prevalent” when she was making the show. Former President Donald J. Trump “can appear less dangerous because he’s a clown and so weak and so vain,” she said, adding those qualities felt similar to John Paul’s. She also drew parallels between the brother-in-law and the British prime minister Boris Johnson, whom she said “gets away with so much by playing the buffoon.”
John Paul systematically tries to take down others around him, based on what he judges to be wrong, while engaging in suspicious behavior of his own: lying to his boss, blackmailing his sister-in-law, falsely accusing a neighbor he dislikes of being a pedophile.
In recent years, Horgan said, she has seen this kind of righteousness in the wider Republican Party. “There are other members of the G.O.P. who would seem a lot more frightening,” she said, “the ones who are clearly trying to restrict women’s freedom while, at the same time, having morally dubious behavior.”