'It's a Sin': TV Review

It's a Sin
Courtesy of Ben Blackall/HBO Max
Full of near-miracles.
2/18/2021

Russell T. Davies returns with a decade-spanning, London-set drama about AIDS on HBO Max, co-starring Neil Patrick Harris.

They came from everywhere, like pilgrims alighting on a holy site. Teenagers left their homes in London, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England, not realizing they were headed toward the same destination: a dive bar where they would discover the other members of their tribe, who they were certain existed despite perhaps never having met one before. They didn’t sound like one another or wear the same kinds of clothes, and the class and cultural gaps between them were sometimes vast. But they all worshipped, in their own ways, at the altar of freedom — the freedom to be who they were for the first time in their lives.

Opening in 1981, the new miniseries It’s a Sin (HBO Max) begins with a celebration of the very brief period of time when the young gay men who came of sexual age in the early '80s were able to enjoy the refuge of London’s hopping queer scene — before AIDS killed many of their friends and lovers. Series writer and creator Russell T. Davies (Years and Years, A Very English Scandal, the original Queer as Folk) accomplishes the quasi-miraculous feat of keeping much of his five-part, decade-spanning series (which debuted on the U.K.’s Channel 4 last month) fizzy and effervescent without ever diminishing the devastation of the AIDS crisis. As with Years and Years, Davies seldom slows his galloping pace, the velocity of his scripts giving us as much of his characters’ lives as possible while hurtling them toward their ends.

The series’ central quintet would’ve been 4 or 5 years old when Parliament decriminalized homosexuality in 1967 — they were the first generation in the modern U.K. to be told that they could love who they loved and could fuck who they fucked (not that they should). Solidly middle-class Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is the show’s default protagonist, a college freshman who arrives in London to study law and quickly changes his major to drama when he sees that his people are in the theater department. He also unconvincingly informs his first friend on campus, Jill (Years and Years alum Lydia West), that he’s bisexual, not gay — among the first of Ritchie's many retreats from the more radical elements of the queer movement.

Ritchie and Jill become roommates in a large apartment they dub the Pink Palace, where they accrue three more cohabitants: Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), a fellow drama student; Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a young man with a penchant for eye shadow who flees his homophobic Nigerian-immigrant parents; and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a mild-mannered tailoring apprentice working on stuffy Savile Row.

Before Colin is found by his future flatmates — in a dive bar, of course — the happiest and best-adjusted gay men he meets are his older co-worker Henry (Neil Patrick Harris in an English accent) and Henry's domestic partner Juan Pablo (Tatsu Carvalho). The only child of a doting single mother, Colin is taken aback when Henry credits his domestic bliss to having “moved on from” his family — the most that the older man can expect as an out gay man of his generation.

We only know Henry and Juan Pablo for a short period of time, but they exemplify Davies’ virtuosic shorthand in telling us who his characters are by showing us how they negotiate their queerness with the sacrifices necessary for self-preservation. Henry is quick to rescue Colin from their lecherous, closeted boss (Nicholas Blane), and takes care to not give his neighbors the “wrong” impression of him and Juan Pablo. Ritchie’s homosexuality is as obvious as his twink charms, but he can’t bear to come out to his parents, lest he lose his golden-child status. Later in the season, a hardened Roscoe acquires a sugar daddy in the form of a Margaret Thatcher-obsessed Tory MP (Stephen Fry), whose internalized homophobia is both startlingly vile and perfectly self-serving.

Another near-miracle of the series: Davies, who tends to nick the audience when they least expect it, somehow manages to capture the shock of AIDS’ arrival in the early '80s. The first death by “gay cancer” is criss-crossed with the main characters being asked about their near- and long-term plans for the future — a juxtaposition that only works so well because series director Peter Hoar and editor Sarah Brewerton are faultless in their cutting rhythms. A joyful early montage of Ritchie’s many, many club hookups — set to a medley of classical tunes — helps explain the life-affirming hedonism of promiscuity, even with everything that’s to come. And a later direct-to-camera address by Ritchie in 1983 about why he doesn’t believe that AIDS is real — “they wanna scare us and stop us having sex and make us really boring” — elucidates how legitimate anxieties about homophobic persecution, combined with the mixed messages that arise from scientific uncertainty, made the revelation of a new virus difficult to accept.

It’s not long before the quintet’s friends start to disappear, first from the city, then from the Pink Palace itself. Many of the settings are familiar to us from other AIDS narratives: hospital wards, clinic waiting rooms, beds where lesions are spotted and sex is suddenly declined. Some react by becoming more righteous and political, and others by hiding their shame under secrets. Davies underscores how the fear of HIV intensified homophobia, even among gay men themselves. And for American viewers, It’s a Sin may prove illuminating in showing how the U.K. media and medical institutions dealt with the emerging crisis — which is to say, horrifyingly.

But the most novel element of the show — other than its exquisitely controlled tonal swerves — might be its depiction of how patients’ families often dealt a secondary blow to friends and boyfriends. Perhaps because Davies’ characters are younger, perhaps because the distance between, say, London and Glasgow isn’t as far as the distance between San Francisco and the Midwest, the parents and siblings here travel to the Pink Palace to bring home their ill children — though not before lashing out at the remaining flatmates. These family members aren’t all monstrous; one mother illustrates how survivors eventually created new communities among themselves. But the series also portrays how the parents of patients were capable of inflicting their own form of cruelty: first by effectively demanding that their children lead double existences, then by displacing their anger and sense of betrayal at being shut out of their sons' lives onto those who love and accept them most.

In capturing a turbulent and terrified zeitgeist, Davies smartly has his characters encompass a wide cross-section of gay men of a certain generation, demonstrating how their disparate backgrounds might inform their reactions to the crisis without the series ever playing like a sociological tract. (I did wish that Ash and especially Jill were more fleshed out, with the latter feeling more like a symbol of all the kindness and care that AIDS patients did receive from loved ones than a person in her own right.) The cast’s performances are uniformly terrific, with Alexander and West in particular embodying the youthful radiance the virus slowly steals from its victims. It’s a Sin remembers how brightly, and how briefly, they lived.

Cast: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis

Creator: Russell T. Davies

Premieres Thursday, Feb. 18, on HBO Max