They Killed Her Sister. Now She’s Come Back to Haunt Them.
Hulu’s new miniseries “The Sister” comes from “Luther” creator Neil Cross, and is a ridiculous murder-mystery that’s a far cry from the Idris Elba-starring crime saga.
People who find themselves in criminal circumstances often behave unwisely, if not outright irrationally. Yet it’s rare to see individuals respond to calamity quite as stupidly as they do in The Sister, a four-part British series debuting Jan. 22 on Hulu.
Written by Luther creator Neil Cross (based on his novel Burial) and directed by Niall MacCormick, The Sister wastes no time laying out its scenario. Within its first five minutes, a series of quick incidents from 2013 and the present reveal that Nathan (Years and Years’ Russell Tovey) and his acquaintance Bob (Bertie Carvel) were involved in the mysterious death of Elise (Simone Ashley) on New Year’s Eve 2009, and that Nathan subsequently opted not to commit suicide but, rather, to assuage his guilt by marrying Elise’s real-estate agent sister Holly (Amrita Acharia). Nathan and Bob’s cover-up of Elise’s death, however, is now being ruined by a developer’s plans to dig up the woods where they buried the young woman’s body, which forces Bob to show up on Nathan’s doorstep asking for help with relocating Elise’s remains—an encounter that also clues Bob in to Nathan’s bonkers marriage.
Nathan’s decision to woo Holly, the grieving sibling of the woman he interred in the middle of nowhere, is recounted in intermittent flashbacks, although none of those scenes successfully sell his nonsensical course of action as believable. By marrying Holly, who decorates their home with pictures of her sister, Nathan has chosen to atone for his sins by facing and immersing himself in them on a daily basis, for the rest of his life, which seems like the opposite of basic human nature. Moreover, it’s reckless from a legal standpoint, since it keeps him intimately close to the only people who’d be interested in catching him. No matter how you look at it, it’s just plain asinine, which means that Nathan is immediately cast as not only a potential fiend, but a moron.
I say “potential” fiend because anyone who’s seen a murder-mystery such as this will swiftly surmise that Nathan’s role in Elise’s death was accidental. The Sister, however, takes its sweet time detailing his history with Holly, his fateful evening at a party with Elise, and his current efforts to deal with the reemergence of Bob, who’s a paranormal expert he met while working at a radio station. Bob’s maiden appearance on Nathan’s doorstep, his long stringy hair and scraggly beard soaked from the rain, underlines his shady malevolence, and before long, he’s sending Nathan a CD that’s supposed to be listened to loud. What does Nathan hear when he pumps up the volume? A lot of static punctuated by the sound of a woman declaring, “I’m not dead.”
The spooky suggestion that Nathan and Bob are being haunted by Elise’s ghost takes off from there, albeit in a fashion that generates zero suspense. Bob attempts to convince Nathan that they have to move Elise’s corpse before it’s discovered by others, to which Nathan senselessly objects. Meanwhile, the show travels back in time to show us how Nathan orchestrated his initial courtship of Holly, replete with hearing her talk about the unsolved disappearance of her sister and meeting her parents—events that make Nathan feel shame, if not to a degree that would dissuade him from proceeding onward with his deceptive romance.
Even though The Sister doesn’t divulge the specifics of Elise’s demise until midway through its third episode, it always feels like the viewer is three steps ahead of the show. Exacerbating that shortcoming is the tiny cast of characters, which only expands beyond Nathan, Bob and Holly (and flashbacks of Elise) when police officer Jacki (Nina Toussaint-White) is introduced. It just so happens that Jacki interviewed both Nathan and Bob about Elise’s disappearance when she first went missing, and wouldn’t you know it, she’s also Holly’s best friend—and maid of honor at her and Nathan’s wedding! Jacki’s complicating presence is contrived to the point of eliciting actual groans, and her role in the tale’s resolution can be seen from a mile away.
The Sister carries itself with an air of deliberate, somber gravity which implies that it’s unaware it’s treading banal genre territory; every one of its elements has been seen before, and in more surprising and novel form. Ensuing revelations about Bob are equally hackneyed and preposterous, and in its closing segments, the show derives drama from illogical motivations that further make one want to see each and every character get their just desserts. Did I mention that Nathan and Holly are also trying to have a baby via IVF, and that this factors into their strained dynamic? The less said about that tacked-on subplot the better, especially since it has no bearing on the primary plot and only serves to underscore this endeavor’s general sloppiness.
Pretending to damn its protagonist, only to slowly reveal his protestations of innocence and love to be genuine, The Sister winds up saying nothing about grief, guilt, and penance. At the same time, it also has little to offer in the way of supernatural scares, this despite the fact that its plot is basically an E.C. Comics-style chiller at heart. Instead of going for exaggerated Creepshow menace, MacCormick and Cross take the glossy prestige-TV route, thereby treating their material with a seriousness it doesn’t warrant. The results are overwrought lead performances from Tovey, Carvel and Acharia, and gloomy, portentous aesthetics—all squawking birds, shadowy forest roads illuminated by headlights, and pained stares into mirrors and out windows—that are at odds with the action at hand.
Dreary and formulaic, The Sister is the sort of faux-high-minded affair best consumed as background noise while doing something else. Even then, one will likely take solace in its brevity—as Bob says in the show’s truest moment, “It’ll be over soon.”