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It's a Sin Is a Vibrant Celebration and a Furious Howl of the AIDS Generation

1980s London is the backdrop for HBO Max's new miniseries about devastating loss and a community's defiant response.
  • Olly Alexander and Lydia West in It's a Sin. (Photo: Russ Ferguson/HBO Max)
    Olly Alexander and Lydia West in It's a Sin. (Photo: Russ Ferguson/HBO Max)

    The truth of the matter is we don't need an excuse to talk about the AIDS crisis. To tell a history that wasn't properly told as it happened. A generation or more suffered and died from a plague while their governments ignored it, the medical establishment first locked them away and the sought to make profit, the news media sold horror stories, and too many parents and families turned them away. It's a horror from within our own lifetimes, and one that — despite great advancements and life-saving treatments — persists, posing a particular danger to queer people of color.

    So, no, you don't need a current "hook" to make a TV show about the AIDS crisis feel urgent or relevant. That said, the new HBO Max miniseries It's a Sin, from writer/creator Russell T. Davies, arrives amid another global pandemic during which government response and care has also been woefully, catastrophically inadequate. It's a Sin isn't about COVID-19, either literally or allegorically, but it's impossible to watch it without feeling an icy grip of recognition around your throat, followed by the devastating reality that AIDS was able to kill for years amid silence, demonization, and shame. There's a righteous anger about that in this five-part miniseries, one that feels clear-eyed and furious about those who let this happen, but the series' creator, Russell T. Davies, is also here to do something even more revolutionary: to celebrate the great, loving, exuberant, beautiful, promising human lives who were lost to AIDS. He succeeds devastatingly well.

    Davies has been telling queer stories on television for long enough to have helped define a generation, one which was finally able to begin to see itself reflected on TV. This began with the original British Queer As Folk, moves through his iterations of the sci-fi staple Doctor Who, including the particularly queer Torchwood spinoff, his cult hit comedies Cucumber and Banana, and last year's apocalyptically predictive Years and Years. Like pretty much all of Davies' productions, It's a Sin aired first on British TV, premiering on Channel 4 in January and concluding this week. All five episodes are dropping concurrently on HBO Max, and together they comprise the best and most impactful HBO Max original to date.

    The miniseries begins in 1981 London, with a trio of queer young men escaping their sheltered lives and largely bigoted families to find their own ways to live and love. First there's Ritchie (Olly Alexander), who leaves his family on the Isle of Wight to go to university and wastes little time disappointing them when he changes his major to drama. Alexander, lead singer of the pop group Years & Years (making his and Davies' professional collaboration somewhat predestined), is the most visible of the show's young cast, his open, youthful face all full of promise and a ravenous attraction to, well, all the London boys he sees.

    Next there's Roscoe (Omari Douglas), whose break from his family is more traumatic and permanent, as he stomps out of the house in defiant drag as his Nigerian immigrant family makes plans to send him back to their home country for having the devil inside him. Colin (Callum Scott Howells), meanwhile, is an introverted Welsh kid who hits London barely aware of himself, though he blessedly finds a friendly mentor figure in Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris).

    By the end of the first episode, these three will have all found each other amid the vibrant queer nightlife of '80s London, along with Jill (Lydia West), Ritchie's acting-school bestie, and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), the wildly handsome guy Ritchie tries to take home on his first night out. It's a Sin feels the most real as it builds this chosen family around its characters, who all end up cohabitating in a flat they dub the "Pink Palace," embodying the ways in which communities of gay men flock to each other through attraction — physical, romantic, platonic, intellectual — and stick by each other through some mix of love, loyalty, and the unspoken realization that they are the family they didn't get via their disapproving dads and bereft mums.

    In any story about queer people in the 1980s, the terrible specter of death is impossible to keep out of mind, These gorgeous, sparkling young men finally free to live as themselves and touch those who they were too terrified to touch have a cruel fate waiting for them not far down the road. We know it, as we watch them dance and sing and drink and fuck together. We know so many of them are going to die, because so many of them did die. But what It's a Sin is determined to do, even as it looks at the carnage of AIDS head-on, is to loudly celebrate their lives as much as it angrily mourns their deaths.

    The sense of community coursing through this story is palpable. I was struck by the fact that this five-part miniseries about five flatmates wasn't told via one character's POV per episode, despite the fact that that's the fashion on serialized dramas these days. This isn't a show about five individuals, but rather about a community of people, whose lives grow like ivy on a brick wall, connecting to others via romance or work or nights out dancing. When the AIDS epidemic hits, it's that community who shoulders the burden of everything: medical care, emotional support, political action. It's a Sin is painfully aware of the deep need for community when the government won't help those who are dying, and of the steep toll extracted from those who have to care for their dying friends. Lydia West's Jill bears this burden most intensely throughout the series, delivering meals, scrubbing counters, collating whatever scant medical information was available at the time, terrified of a plague whose dimensions were unknown.

    Davies spares no small outrage for those whose inaction and cruelty allowed AIDS to flourish unimpeded for so long, from Margaret Thatcher, to hypocrite members of Parliament, to hospitals who locked their patients away rather than care for them, to the police who beat the queer activists screaming in the streets to be heard. But his most exacting ire is reserved for the the parents whose bigotry first pushed their sons away and later whose shame led them to come retrieve those dying boys and lock them away in their final days. His gaze is empathetic but unyielding, which feels like a bold but necessary choice.

    There is rage and grief pumping hot blood throughout the series, but it's rage and grief for something beautiful, and Davies never loses sight of that, determined to show us who and what was lost and not merely how. There is defiance and delicateness and deeply earned friendship and incredibly hot sex in these episodes, buoyed by a soundtrack populated by the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat, Blondie, Kate Bush, and Joy Division. There is an elegiac moment for Laura Branigan's "Gloria" and a smash cut to Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven Is a Place on Earth" that made me burst into tears.

    It's a Sin is both devastating and blood-boiling as it details the infuriating loss of a generation. "Where do you see yourself in ten years time?" is a question posed in a montage towards the end of episode 1, an open-ended question that is more than just a cruel irony. It's a challenge to all of us who remember. To constantly ask what would those men have become in 10, 20, 30, 40 years, had they been allowed to live? To never forget the sin that was allowing them to die in silence.

    It's a Sin drops on HBO Max February 18th.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: It's a Sin, HBO Max, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis, Neil Patrick Harris, Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Russell T. Davies