Given that we are in the midst of LGBT History Month, it feels fitting that TV mastermind Russell T. Davies should choose now to release It’s a Sin. The series is Davies’ most recent project for Channel 4, presenting life in the UK during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Filled with heart, honesty, and humanity, the series feels like Davies’ best work (and he has done a lot of great work), pulling no punches and commemorating a period in our history that should never be forgotten.
The cast boasts Years and Years singer Olly Alexander, along with Lydia West, Keeley Hawes, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, and Nathaniel Curtis. There are also supporting roles from Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris.
Named after the iconic Pet Shop Boys song, the series begins in 1981, as Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin begin this new decade with their new lives in London. Strangers at first, the three men and their best friends Jill and Ash find themselves thrown together, and thus their chosen family is born.
But a new and deadly virus is on the rise, and soon their lives will be tested in ways they never imagined. As the decade passes and they grow up in the shadow of AIDS, they’re determined to live and love more fiercely than ever. They support one another through the typical tribulations of life in your early 20s – varying degrees of acceptance from their families, romantic trysts, getting a job – but their bond is cemented through their endurance of the epidemic’s horror. It’s a Sin remembers the boys we lost and celebrates those lives which burned so brightly.
Shame and denial
Olly Alexander plays 18-year-old Ritchie Tozer; the golden boy of his family, he’s nevertheless determined to keep his secrets from them. His life, like many, is dictated by shame, a concept Davies touches on well throughout the series and in its closing act. Alexander gives a solid performance as Ritchie, a charismatic social butterfly who revels in the scene’s promiscuous culture and aspires to be a successful actor. Ritchie, however, displays the denial that will undoubtedly resonate with many in our community, refusing to put too much weight on the virus’ severity and demonstrating reluctance to be tested for fear of the result. It’s a Sin, of course, does not sugar coat the experience of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and this feels like an authentic part of that story.
Life through the lens of AIDS
It is easy to compare It’s a Sin to Davies’ seminal work Queer as Folk, a landmark series that depicted gay life in Manchester at the turn of this century. It’s fun, bold, and boasts fully-realized characters that transcend previous stereotypes of gay men on TV. However, it arguably omits any fallout from the AIDS crisis, or at least neglects to mention it in much depth. Writing for The Guardian last year, Davies reflects:
‘The straight press were as hostile as you’d expect, but the gay press were especially furious because we had no condoms, no warnings, no messages on screen. Well, yes, tough. Because by that stage, in 1999, I refused to let our lives be defined by disease. So, I excluded it on purpose. The omission of AIDS was a statement in itself, and it was the right thing to do.’
This mirrors a sentiment shared by It’s A Sin’s Ritchie, as he bemoans the fact that every conversation must involve AIDS in some capacity. One can empathise with Davies, living through an era in which men like him were decimated on an unimaginable scale, for adopting such an omissive attitude to his work.
No-one is untouchable
But Davies’ work has embraced and explored AIDS in recent years, and in It’s a Sin he is heartbreakingly masterful in cultivating such deep affection for these characters from the start. As the virus inevitably closes in on the community the audience has grown to love, we find ourselves saying, ‘Surely he will be fine, ‘This person is untouchable’, and the characters themselves display the same innocent confidence.
But this naivety is an essential element to the show: it’s a reminder that no-one was exempt from contracting the virus, and any assumptions otherwise were misguided. Just like in real life, there are no happy endings for a group so profoundly impacted by the trauma of AIDS, regardless of their own status. By the end, we can only hope the survivors – characters we feel are now friends of our own – find happiness in whatever comes next.
The emotional anchor
If there is a breakout performance in the series, it is arguably Lydia West, who plays Jill, the only straight girl in the flat. West was aware of the responsibility that accepting the part brought with it:
‘It felt like a very powerful and important role to play. These people are the unsung heroes. And they faced the same stigma that came with the disease, too… People like Jill are heroes, and they’re selfless and generous and kind, all in the name of love. These people didn’t want a round of applause. Jill didn’t do what she did for anyone other than the people she helped, out of love and friendship.’
Jill is the emotional anchor for everyone around her; she nurses her friends, whether they’re sick or not, equips herself with whatever (limited) knowledge was available at the time, and rallies those around her to become galvanised political activists. But West’s performance – conveying Jill’s effervescence from one extreme to her measured stoicism in the other – is a tribute to the friends and allies who have stood alongside our community.
Joy and tragedy
Many reviews are lauding It’s a Sin for its balance of joy and tragedy, and they are right to do so: the cast is endlessly charming, the chemistry between our core group of five is palpable and there are many funny, heart-warming moments that save the series from becoming so completely dismal. And this lightness helps deliver the inevitable, brutal, weight of its subject matter all the better.
But the show succeeds in presenting the discomfort and sombre moments of the era that my generation are fortunate enough not to have experienced first-hand. To do anything otherwise would be an insult. We need to see how funeral companies treated our predecessors (and their families); how, early on, a medical questionnaire asks one of the characters whether he has had sex with animals; how so many died in complete isolation because their families had disowned them and their friends were all dead. It’s not easy viewing, but it is essential viewing.
Objectively, It’s a Sin is an excellent series – its stellar cast delivers tremendous performances, the characters and their stories are engaging, and Davies once again delivers a heartfelt and challenging story for its audience to connect to. But the series’ success comes in the weight one feels at the end of each episode, having walked very briefly in the shoes of those who did not live to tell their stories, or having shared even slightly the trauma of those who did.