The prolific showrunner talks about leaving her “comfort zone” for her new Apple TV+ series, teases a possible return to “Catastrophe,” and opens up about choosing life over work.
Sharon Horgan can’t seem to stop creating television shows. From Pulling to Catastrophe to Divorce to Motherland to Shining Vale to her latest, the Apple TV+ comedy thriller Bad Sisters, she is one of the most prolific showrunners in the game.
In this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, Horgan talks about venturing outside of her comfort zone for her new show and creating her first true villain after years of writing flawed but ultimately sympathetic characters. She also reflects on how she met her Catastrophe co-creator and co-star Rob Delaney on Twitter, remembers her final dinner with the late Carrie Fisher (who just happened to bring along Salman Rushdie), and looks ahead to the even more personal show she’s hoping to create next.
Horgan and I are talking on the day that Bad Sisters drops on Apple TV+. When I ask her how the big London premiere was the night before, she smiles and sheepishly admits it went “really well.”
“People really responded,” she says, noting that it’s “nerve-racking to spend two and a half years working on something” and then finally present it to the world.
After Catastrophe’s fourth and final season aired on Amazon in 2019, Horgan was gearing up to tackle the “next stage” of life with a new series that she assumed would look something like the other half-hour comedies she has created. “I feel like I was interested in writing about this stage of my life because it’s proving to be interesting. But as it turns out, you need a bit of space and time before you can turn something like that into comedy,” she says.
It was an executive from Apple TV+ who suggested she look at adapting the Flemish series Clan, about a group of sisters who plot to kill their abusive brother-in-law.
“I’ve been offered stuff like that over the years, whether it’s books or turning Italian series into U.K. shows, and it never really appealed to me,” she explains. “And also it was an hour, which I hadn’t done before, and it was a thriller, which I certainly hadn’t done before. But I watched the first episode and I was just kind of in.”
Bad Sisters centers on the Garvey sisters—Horgan plays Eva, the eldest and makeshift matriarch—who spend the series plotting to kill their abusive brother-in-law John Paul, aka “The Prick,” played with despicable smarm by Danish actor Claes Bang. In a rave review for The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, Coleman Spilde described “The Prick” as a “misogynist, racist, self-aggrandizing, belittling, piece-of-shit, world-class asshole—sorry, arsehole.”
Jumping back and forth between two timelines—one before and one after John Paul’s death—Horgan deftly mixes propulsive suspense with the type of burst-out-laughing dark comedy that became a signature of her previous work. In doing so, she makes the case that bingeable thrillers can, and perhaps should, be as funny as more frivolous sitcoms.
“It’s nice to take yourself out of your comfort zone,” Horgan says. “It’s scary because you never know whether people are going to say, ‘Get back into your comfort zone!’”
Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation. You can listen to the whole thing by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts, and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.
You’ve written a lot of very flawed characters over the years, but I don’t think you’ve ever written a true villain like John Paul in this show.
No, I haven’t, no.
And he is an unbelievable character—just one of the most infuriating people I’ve ever seen on TV.
Yeah, he’s vile. And yeah, I haven’t done that before, but it was really good fun, because you can really have them say the absolute vilest things. When you think about monsters on TV, when they’re just sort of peripheral characters, you can make them quite evil. But when they are main characters or villains, you have to give them layers and you have to get to know them and they have to have a history and all of that. You need to make sure that you’re not just seeing the same thing played out. Like Livia Soprano, Tony’s mother [on The Sopranos], just evil to the core. You couldn’t watch that as a main character. And then you have a character like Cersei Lannister [from Game of Thrones], who, of course she’s a monster, but there are layers and you understand that she’s a good mother and you know the history with her father. With JP, with “The Prick,” we just had to make sure there was enough going on to keep it intriguing and actually to make him scarier in a way. He’s not a great man, and he knows that, but he wants to be. And that can turn someone into a monster if they’re not made of sterner stuff.
I know you’ve taken a lot of things from your own life in your work, but this is a little bit of a departure. You do come from a family of five siblings, so there’s that, but are there other things that you were taking from your own life and experience and putting into this show in different ways?
The big family thing is a big part of it, because I like the chemistry of an instant party, an instant tribe of people who would do anything for each other. I mean, I hope I never have to kill for my brothers and sisters. But I would if I had to. Apart from that, I’m lucky enough to have never been in a terrible relationship, but I’ve seen it around me. I’ve seen friends in that situation. I’ve seen someone sort of ground down to nothing because they don’t know how to get out from it. All of that helps, but it’s more sort of peripheral to my life than actually my life, thank god.
There’s no one in your own family that you wish you could get rid of?
You have this incredible cast across the board, but Eve Hewson as Becka was a real surprise for me. I had seen her do drama on The Knick, but she’s so funny and I hadn’t seen that side of her before.
She knew she was funny as well, she just wasn’t getting those parts. So it was absolutely something she really wanted to do. She auditioned for it, actually, and I immediately fell in love with her. Not just fell in love with her, I was like, well, that’s Becka. But you have a big team of people involved and they wanted to see more or they wanted to see the chemistry with me and her or whatever it was. But I knew that when you keep someone hanging on, other offers come their way. And she was offered this big Marvel movie, so it was like Bad Sisters versus some mega, mega thing. So I was scared I was going to lose her.
And she turned down the big movie?
She did, yeah.
That’s a big honor.
Yeah, I had sent her this big love letter that explained why she had to do it and she wrote back and said, “The very thought of anyone else playing Becka would kill me, so I’m on board.” So that was great, we had our whole family then. And yeah, it all just came together.
It’s only been about three years since Catastrophe went off the air, but I was curious if you ever think about revisiting those characters and seeing what they’re up to down the line?
Yeah, we used to talk about it a lot, Rob [Delaney] and I, because the thing is, I think Rob felt like he said everything he could say about having kids at that age, in a relationship like that. And I think he was probably right. And I also think it’s not a bad idea to quit while you’re ahead, but we often talk about what those characters would be like with older kids, with teenagers. He said the dream would be that we would be approached to do it and we’d both be too busy. Maybe that’s also my dream.
The show ends on such a hopeful note, really, considering all of the dark stuff in it. Do you think about where they are 20 years down the line? Are they still together?
I really do! I have little daydreams about it all the time. It’s a bizarre thing. My hope for that show, because I loved it so much, was that people would remember it, that it would stay with them. And the whole point of the ending was that people could sort of write their own. That way, it sort of continues. But yeah, for me, they stayed there [in Boston] and Sharon did her time and then they eventually come back to to England, where she can’t believe what a fucking shithole this place has turned out to be. And there goes the cycle again.
You mentioned that you thought your next show after Catastrophe would be taking on the next phase of life and then you took a detour to make this show. What does that next show look like in your head? What do you imagine it being?
Well, it’s not fully formed yet, but I am in a sort of an interesting situation in that I’m in my fifties now, I’m out of a long-term marriage, and I have teenage kids and elderly parents, and I just think it just feels so fertile. I’m interested in people sort of starting again and what that means, and the mistakes that you make at this age and the impact they have and the frustration of having your choices limited and the panic that comes with having to not die alone. So I just feel like there’s dark and good and funny potential there. I’ve made a start and I have an outline, but I have outlines for lots of things, so… But it’s also a timing thing. I mean, I like the idea of doing more in this lovely thriller genre that I’ve come to so late. So I don’t know where to start.
It’s interesting that you created and wrote the show Divorce for HBO before you had direct experience with it.
I know! I mean, it was based on my close friend’s experience and a lot of the detail was her detail—that she gave me, I didn’t steal it! But it’s like [HBO’s head of comedy programming] Amy Gravitt said at the time, anyone who’s been in a long-term marriage knows what it feels like to want a divorce. So I felt like there was a lot of territory in there that I felt very qualified to talk about.
Do you feel like you would approach it differently now, having had this experience yourself?
Well, the first season of Divorce was the one that I was most involved with. The second season, a little bit, and not the third. And the first season was really about the mechanics of divorce and the industry behind divorce. That’s a lot of what the show was about—watching these great characters sort of take each other apart. But for me, if I was to write about this stage of life now, it wouldn’t be about the divorce side of it. It would be about what it means to be a person of this age kick-starting their life again. It would be more of a hopeful thing, with a lot of pain, because you need that.
You’ve already examined the most painful parts of the beginnings of a divorce.
Exactly, that’s the hellish bit. I feel like the leftovers are equally interesting and can be equally painful. But yeah, I’ll just percolate it for a while.
I’ve seen you say in interviews that you feel less ambitious than you used to. That you used to want to be at the top of Hollywood and you don’t feel that way anymore. And it reminded me of a scene from Motherland that I love, where Julia decides to turn down a promotion.
Yeah, I love that scene. I think it’s a massive myth that you can “have it all.” I mean, you can, but you’re going to go absolutely crazy. And certainly now, since my divorce, I’m in a different situation where I can’t just swan off and leave my kids. So it means that choices are made and I work a lot closer to home now. There’s no chance of me going, “That looks like a wonderful movie set in Australia.” My life doesn’t allow for that. So yeah, it’s about weighing up the difficulties of those choices and choosing life.
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