Don’t be put off – Russell T Davies’ AIDS drama authentically balances tragedy with a lust for life.
This has been written as a review of the series as a whole but care has been taken to avoid spoilers. There are some minor details about early episodes, but there are no significant plot points discussed and no attempt to hint at anything specific that might happen later on, other than the broad assumption that things are not likely to turn out well for everyone involved.
Every so often, if you are lucky, a film or television programme bursts into your life and you immediately know it has taken up residence in your heart and mind for a long, long time. It’s A Sin is one of those shows.
Over the course of five tight, exhilarating episodes, the new Russell T Davies series from Channel 4 tells the stories of four young gay men, Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), and their best friend Jill (Lydia West). They meet in London in 1981, as they’re taking their first foray into adulthood, whether that’s leaving a loving – if claustrophobic – home for university like Ritchie, or striding away from ultra-religious parents in dramatic fashion like Roscoe. We follow them through the decade as the threat of the little-understood (at the time) virus HIV/AIDS creeps ever closer, eventually turning their lives upside down in ways they never could have imagined.
Filming wrapped in January last year, so any similarity to current events is purely coincidental, but It’s A Sin feels eerily relevant to this moment. People who lived through the time when HIV/AIDS was ravaging whole communities have been telling us since early 2020 that Covid-19 is not the first pandemic in many of our lifetimes, but the show – unintentionally – makes apparent the many direct parallels there are. The conspiracy theories and misinformation being peddled about HIV/AIDS in early episodes – albeit in a totally different way, pre-internet – sound depressingly familiar.
Some critics argue – and not without good reason – that we have seen enough gay trauma onscreen and it would perhaps seem fair to question whether we need a show examining such a painful time in queer history, especially given we now live in a world where HIV is an easily-manageable virus which can be reduced to the point where it is undetectable and non-transmissible, provided you have access to the right care. With the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope still very much alive and well (Supernatural, anyone? Torchwood, Russell..?) and ever-increasing opportunities for LGBTQ+ creators, why not tell a happy story?
Firstly, while American writers have explored this subject, in works like Tony Kushner’s multi-award-winning play Angels In America and more recently Pose, Ryan Murphy’s groundbreaking series about the New York ballroom scene, It’s A Sin is the only mainstream dramatisation of the lives of young British queer people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It simply hasn’t been done before on UK television. These are not stories that have had the luxury of being over-told.
Secondly, crucially, it would be hugely unfair to dismiss this as just another show where bad things happen to gay characters. As Alexander told the Guardian, “People hear: ‘It charts the progress of the AIDS crisis,’ and they think: ‘God, this is gonna be real heavy. And there are some heavy moments, but it’s more about the joy of these characters.” It’s A Sin, despite everything, is a joyful show. It fizzes over with love and lust: the deep love between friends, an overwhelming lust for life in all its fullness.
The friends move in together, dubbing their crumbling flat ‘The Pink Palace’, and spend their time laughing, dancing, and trying their best to make their way in the world. For Colin this involves an apprenticeship on Savile Row and Jill, delightfully, finds herself in the chorus of a copyright-free new musical set in the French revolution that is definitely not Les Misérables. As there would be in any coming-of-age story about fresh twenty-somethings in London, there is a degree of hedonism, but, like Pose, at its heart It’s A Sin is a chosen-family drama. The gang spend most of their time sitting around the kitchen table sharing in-jokes (“La!”), taking the piss out of each other and occasionally reading ominous headlines in the newspaper about a mysterious illness happening far away.
Yes, there are moments of shocking, gut-punching sadness. Like a Greek tragedy, the dramatic irony of what we know is coming for these kids is woven throughout. But what makes it such a glorious, heartbreaking piece of television is how thrillingly alive they all are. Without getting too specific and slipping into spoiler territory, the indelible performances (featuring screen debuts for some of the main cast as well as stellar turns from heavyweights like Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry, Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley) and the strength – as ever – of Davies’ writing combine, alchemically, to forge something precious.
There was a minor ripple a few weeks ago when, talking about the casting process for the show, Davies stated that he now believes gay actors should play gay roles. However you feel about the practicalities of that (what about closeted people, for example?) there is no denying that the cast of It’s A Sin bring a level of authenticity, warmth and vibrancy that is a large part of the reason these characters will be living rent-free in my heart for years to come. From sheltered Colin’s sweet giggle of disbelief as he admits for the first time that he might want a boyfriend someday to the pulsating energy of the gay club nights, each scene is shot through with truth.
Decades of film and television dominated by straight voices have sold us the lie that queer lives have to either be filled with misery or reduced to that of a comedy sidekick, a ‘Gay Best Friend’ played for laughs. It’s A Sin shows us the stories of people going through some of the worst times imaginable, but they’re also young, excited, happy, flawed, fucked-up, whole people. It shows us their effervescent joy and their ferocious love for each other, not because they are one-dimensional ‘inspiration porn’, or because their pain doesn’t matter but because it does.
Callum Scott Howells told Digital Spy (in a highly spoilery article – beware), “I hope people remember these characters, and they remember these people. Because these people were real, you know? They’re fictional, but they also represent the real people who suffered and who we unfortunately lost. I just hope that people go on to remember these people for a long, long, long time.”
A masterpiece in Russell T Davies’ career of masterpieces, It’s A Sin is a testament to a generation whose stories – both happy and sad – were silenced far too soon and overlooked for far too long. It also happens to be, by a weird quirk of fate, a timely account of how people continued to live under the cloud of a global epidemic, finding their everyday lives twisted beyond recognition. For those of us watching from 2021, with some uncomfortable parallels echoing through the years, it is difficult to imagine how there could be a more potent demonstration of the inalienable power of storytelling, and of how important it will always be to remember that nobody is ever defined solely by their darkest moments.
It’s A Sin is streaming on All4 now and airing weekly on Channel 4 until February 19.