When it comes to the early years of the AIDS crisis, I can't say, “I was there.” Rather, I was around there.
My youth wasn't so much directly shaken by AIDS as it was formed by the tsunami it created. I was already aware of what AIDS was before I had my first kiss in 1987, so by the time I was having sex, it was a fact of life. There was no meaningful before, during and after for me, just — after.
Instead of sexual abandon, I poured myself into collecting things, obsessing over music, making art and writing. I eventually worked out many of my frustrations in a novel that, in retrospect, exposes some of my AIDS-induced hang-ups — and I think It's a Sin could be read as similarly revelatory of the mindset of creator Russell T. Davies, for better and for worse.
Having received largely rapturous reviews, It's a Sin, a commercial, serialized, gay-told take on how AIDS ravaged the queer community in London in the '80s, is now experiencing a bit of a backlash, mostly from HIV activists, whose experience with the subject matter makes it impossible for me to refute their experience with the series. From the perspective of someone who narrowly missed the early years of HIV, and as an HIV-negative man, It's a Sin was always going to mean something different to me than it would mean to people who truly survived that era.
But I think the praise and the criticism are both valuable, and speak to the buttons Davies and his talented cast are pushing — buttons that should be pushed more often so we don't wind up, as we did when this first aired in the UK, with scores of young people expressing shock that AIDS ever happened in the first place.
Overall, I loved It's a Sin. Over the course of four episodes, I was engrossed in the story, impressed by the acting and surprised by Davies' deft ability to work in other aspects of gay life that I hadn't expected, including issues surrounding coming of age, coming out, meeting your first gay person, coming to terms with and exploring sexuality and dealing with parental, political and social pressures while attempting to nurture one's own sense of self. The series is not the story of HIV, after all, but the story of a group of people confronted by it, and it is most successful when not losing sight of that.
The fifth episode, however, failed miserably for me. It was so off the mark it caused me to reflect more deeply and critically on minor quibbles I'd had with the previous installments, and led me to decide I felt It's a Sin — which I urge everyone to watch — is a far better and more important work if one forgets the final episode.
Read on if you are okay with spoilers ...
It's a sin that it took so many years for It's a Sin to get made. Davies pitched it as the first-ever look at the early years of AIDS from the perspective of a diverse group of Londoners, which sounds like a home run, but even then it was a hard sell. When finally given the green light, it was limited to five episodes on Channel 4, an unusually small number.
The fact that it promptly became the most-watched dramatic series in British history vindicates Davies, and is due in no small part to how relatable, even at their most regrettable, the characters are.
As the series opens, a core group, most of them having only just left home, become fast friends in London in the early '80s. The rhythms of their friendships feel organic, incestuous and real, and I think this is why the series largely works as well as it does.
I'd been led to believe from media reports that fame-chasing actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a baby Tory glibly in denial of “gay cancer” who uses promiscuity to feel liberated, was the true lead, but I would argue the series is mostly from the perspective of his best friend, fellow actor-wannabe Jill (Lydia West). Jill, a biracial woman, is straight, yet is the first person in the group to take news reports of AIDS seriously, mainly because she's confronted with it in the form of their older friend Gregory aka Gloria (David Carlyle) becoming ill and dying. Until he gets sick, the group assumes nobody in their orbit is really getting sick (just avoid sex with NYC boys!), and Ritchie is as smug in his denial as a present-day anti-masker. It is Jill — a character based on a real person — who sees Gloria's swift decline, and though sworn to secrecy about it, sets out to learn all she can about the mystery illness.
If Jill is our eyes and Ritchie our id, I would call Colin (Callum Scott Howells) the heart of the piece. Painfully shy, Colin observes his new friends almost as if they're wild animals. He longs to be a part of the pack, but is also narrowly focused on achieving big things in an apprenticeship. Even with a sweet, naive mum (Andria Doherty, who delivers nearly the best performance in the piece), he's still utterly repressed in the era of Thatcherism, and simply wants a chance to see what his story in life will be.
The other major players are Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), an Indian man who is one of Ritchie's first conquests, who helps Ritchie get into the swing of being gay before later recurring in his life in a more meaningful way, and Roscoe (Omari Douglas), whose Nigerian family is not only disapproving of him being gay but who see him as being possessed by the devil. Moments from being whisked back to Africa, Roscoe dons drag and marches out of his home, working at a gay bar and — like all the others, save Colin — working his way through nearly every boy in London.
The beauty of It's a Sin is its loving attention to detail, and its from-within remembrance of what it's like to be gay and young. In particular, Colin's story arc reminds us of the euphoria of being taken under the wing of a kindly gay elder (played beautifully by Neil Patrick Harris), the dread of having to deal with unwanted advances and the clandestine thrill of losing your virginity, of actually doing gay.
I also appreciated Roscoe's story. Having left his family, it's no surprise he would smell money and security in the form of a politico (Stephen Fry), and hearing his benefactor erasing their relationship and reducing their sex to an act of self-flagellation was one of the most unexpected moments of the series, even if the scene quickly reverts to a cheap echo of The Help.
There is sadness in the details, too, as Davies trains his eye on the abhorrent behavior of Gloria's family, who burn every memory of him through tears, or on the perhaps even more bone-chilling efficiency with which Colin is summarily fired, secretly because his lecherous boss (Nichola Blane) suspects he has AIDS because he has collected literature on the subject for Jill.
By the end of the fourth episode, the surviving characters have grown, even Ritchie, who has gone from career-closetedness to street activism, and whose declaration, in the face of a full-blown AIDS diagnosis, that he will live can be seen less as self-delusion and more as a show of non-narcissistic self-love and optimism.
It is in the final episode where Davies' instincts, for me, collapse. Ritchie, once sidelined by his illness and ensconced back in his childhood home thanks to the muscle of his family, is an afterthought as Jill flays his mom Valerie (played flawlessly by Keeley Hawes), accusing her of laying the groundwork for her son's self-loathing, going so far as to embrace Ritchie's previously stated belief that by having sex once diagnosed he was a murderer, weaponizing it (therefore endorsing it) against his mother. I found it remarkably out of character that Jill would tell the far-from-perfect mother, in her lowest moment, that she caused everything that happened to Ritchie. In effect, Davies seems to be having Jill declare that the titular sin was an original sin spawned by conditional maternal love.
Worse, there is a scene in which a random mom overhears Valerie talking about how she never realized flamboyant Ritchie was gay. It's cheeky enough for Jill to snort in her face, but when this stranger destroys the woman for admitting she didn't have the tools to recognize the homosexuality her son was trying so hard to hide from her, I simply couldn't accept that such a conversation would happen. The woman isn't trashing Valerie for turning Ritchie out of the house, or for calling him names or denying him funds or anything vile, she's trashing her for daring not to have known what so many moms lie about and say mothers always know.
Again, this episode so shook me out of my affection for the series that it reminded me of some things that had bothered me along the way. For one, the series doesn't try to be And the Band Played On, it is not the story of AIDS, yet it's strange that a story of AIDS centers around a straight ally (Jill). In episode 5, that becomes even more clear, as Ritchie sinks from view and the series gives over its POV to that straight ally and a straight villain (Valerie). I could not have been less interested in Ritchie's mom after having watched the life stories of the people directly affected by AIDS, and I felt Davies had already marvelously touched on this via other moments all along the way.
More upsetting is the introduction of that idea that people with AIDS were murdering others. I did understand Ritchie addressing his own behavior, but when Jill took up that mantle, it reminded me that Colin's death — which will stay with me forever — was a plot point about which I'd had nagging guilt. Why? Because I knew that the narrative could be seen as presenting him as an “innocent” victim, of reducing how he could have gotten HIV to a whodunit. I can overcome that misgiving in that I think the surprise that Colin had lost his virginity to his landlady's son wasn't so much intended to set him up as an innocent as it was to hammer home that HIV is a virus devoid of morality. Also, Davies not having shown us Colin's first sexual experience wasn't a cheap trick but rather an artful way of echoing Colin's own inability to truly accept that he was a sexual creature. We didn't know it had happened, and Colin barely accepted that it had happened — he collected AIDS lit for Jill and stared at it blankly, seemingly not even seeing himself as potentially affected by it.
Regardless of some of the troubling missteps, I still think the series overall achieves a level of empathy and realism sorely missing in most of the latest binge-worthy dramas, and should make stars of its sterling cast.
Nobody sent me a screener of It's a Sin or an HBO Max pass — I took it upon myself to pay for it, and it was money well spent. It's a Sin is a labor of gay love, a series made in good faith with sure-to-become iconic moments and beloved characters. It is not the story of the AIDS crisis, but of the triumph of the human spirit, and of love.