Imagine how vibrant the world could’ve been if AIDS didn’t shatter the gay community in the 1980’s. Think of the brilliance that we were denied because of this ugly disease and the stigma that still haunts the community. Russell T. Davies has given us a beautiful series with It’s a Sin. There is unbelievable pain, but there is also light and beauty and exhilaration. This is the first great show of 2021.
As the coronavirus rages across the world, it’s impossible to not see the parallels as HIV and AIDS becomes part of the vernacular of this group of young gay men living in London in 1981. Olly Alexander’s Ritchie dreams of becoming an actor and his sexual awakening is fast and furious. He lives in a flat with Omari Douglas’s Roscoe (a bar manager), Lydia West’s Jill (a fellow actor), and Nathaniel Curtis’ Ash (a teacher), but they welcome Callum Scott Howells’ Colin to live with them. Colin is shy and quiet and he isn’t as bold as the rest of the boys even though their antics bring a smile to his face.
The whispers of a “gay disease” bring fear and doubt to the streets of London but some take it more seriously than others. Could there possibly be a cancer that targets only gay men? Ritchie refuses to believe it and keeps hooking up while Colin is more cautious. Soon HIV and AIDS invades this group’s every day lives. It’s a Sin does an incredible job of making the paranoia very real for the audience even though we can acknowledge the distance of the time period and recognize how far we’ve come. The characters even talk about AIDS initially being more of an American problem just like how everyone waited for a confirmed COVID case to pop up in the US.
There have been shows that highlight the treatment of AIDS patients being neglected and ignored by medical staff because of their fear of contracting the virus. At the early stages, no one new how it spread so everyone would wear rubber gloves when attending to patients or they would cruelly leave their food on the floor outside their rooms. What It’s a Sin does so successfully, however, is confront internal shame that victims of the virus feel. A character cries out, “I’m not dirty” when his status is revealed to his mother, and shame is a focus in one of the later episodes of the series. It doesn’t have all of the answers since this is such an emotionally complex issue but shedding light on how brutally complicated those feelings are is quite revolutionary. There are still guys on dating apps who ask, ‘Are you clean?’ and this is where it originated from. We are still dealing with the reverberations of this. Davies’ Queer as Folk (both the original and American versions) explored how gay people defined themselves by their sexuality and that is a prevalent theme throughout gay literature (read some Larry Kramer) as well as this.
The refusal to lay down and die is evident in all of the performances. Olly Alexander proves himself to have deft acting chops as Ritchie. His denial of his community’s pain is well hidden but it comes out in flashes. He represents the sexual freedom and independence that gay men fought for and his refusal to give that up is tragic in its own right. As Jill, Lydia West is a fierce friend. Her activism is a cry for recognition for all the women who sacrificed their time in order to make people more comfortable as they faded away. The caregivers of that epidemic should continually be celebrated. My heart was always warmed by the presence of Callum Scott Howells. It’s astonishing that this is his debut. Valerie, Ritchie’s mother, is embodied by Keeley Hawes and she delivers an exceptionally layered performance as a woman who doesn’t really know her son. She gives one of the best performances I’ve seen in a while.
The music supervision deserves all the praise it can get. The wallops the cues deliver literally made me hear my heartbeat in my ears. There is a lot of hope and anticipation for these young people but it can all be ripped from them at any moment, and It’s a Sin epitomizes that. They are hungry to life, but the disease is ferocious and terrifying.
This group highlights the resilience of the gay community as the epidemic boiled over. It’s personal but it’s also grand and larger than life. These young people refused to lay down and die because they had so much to live for and so much to prove. It’s a Sin is so beautiful and poetic in how it faces down the threat of this disease.
It’s a Sin debuts on HBO Mac on February 18.