When it became clear that COVID-19 was on our shores, people’s responses varied. Some sanitised their grocery shopping. Some washed their hands after touching anything out of the house. Some didn’t leave the house at all. All this was in the face of a deadly disease we knew little about but were at least aware of.
Yet in the 1980s, when there was no internet and barely any mainstream coverage (at first), AIDS was tearing through lives in secret.
It's A Sin, written by acclaimed writer Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who, Queer as Folk, Years and Years) follows the lives of an ensemble cast from 1981 to 1991 over the course of 5 episodes, as the AIDS epidemic stole lives but went criminally underreported due to predominantly affecting gay men.
Leading the cast is Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer, an exuberant aspiring actor who, upon moving to London, lets off the shackles of his closeted home life in order to jump headfirst into nightclubs, boys, and promiscuity.
Alexander’s skill is to add oodles of loveable charm to the character even during his most waspish and dismissive moments. His likeable nature anchors the series, especially as his bright grin fades ever smaller as time passes on.
Coalescing into a shared household of new found friends, Ritchie moves in with warm and caring Jill Baxter (Lydia West), upbeat but naïve Colin (an apprentice Saville Row tailor, wide-eyed from rural Wales) and flamboyant Roscoe (who defiantly whirls out of the family home to avoid his religious father sending him back to Nigeria).
Davies’ style is such that in your face opening bombast hides a stealthy building of character beats for later. With such a dark subject matter to tackle, It’s A Sin leans hard into debauchery for the first episode so that what these characters have to lose becomes painfully clear.
Even though each person is skilfully rounded out both in the writing and performance, there are clear archetypes at play to represent different facets of being gay in the 80s.
Ritchie’s bitchy monologue espousing all his theories as to how AIDS is a fallacy and homophobic propaganda tool, coupled with his later fear at getting tested himself, is an astute summarisation of how when you battle to even exist, the fear of an apparent death sentence could drive otherwise inexplicable behaviour.
“I’m not a slut,” sobs one self-isolating sufferer hidden away at their home in shame and confusion. Jill, however, with all due love for her friend, represents just how difficult it was to find any information at all when news reports kept quiet.
Is It's A Sin Worth Watching?
As the dark cloud looms in from across the Atlantic (AIDS was more prevalent in the US in the early days) its initial insidious toll went under a radar of shame, ignorance, and prejudice.
Davies weaves this into the first two episodes, thanks to a wonderful turn from Neil Patrick Harris. Coltrane (Harris) takes Colin under his wing, but as both he and his long term partner fall prey to a mysterious ‘cancer’, he is whisked away to be locked in a secure ward, treated as highly infectious and cut off from human contact.
Another star performance comes courtesy of Keeley Hawes (The Durrells) as Ritchie’s mother. Although barely present for most of the series (Ritchie’s household is a typical one of casual homophobia), come the finale her twisting of pain into anger is delivered with uncomfortable accuracy.
She works through the emotional dissonance of trying to reconcile love for your child alongside the repercussions of his actions (and who is to blame thereof), thanks to her own craft and Davies’ tightly sculpted dialogue.
It's a Sin encapsulates a lived in trauma for a whole generation, starting from the gay community and branching out ever wider. It also, as the dialogue given to Ritchie makes clear, reminds us that before the death and pain and heartbreak, it was fun.
Fun to be young and with your new family who accepted you. Fun to cut loose and party like there was no tomorrow. Fun to be in the thick of it.
The riotous colours, energetic sex scenes, and anthemic 80s soundtrack show Davies’ commitment to bringing the best of a lifestyle unapologetically to the screen, before the indiscriminate killer struck too many down and ignited prejudices that require little excuse to resurface anyway.
Such tones are indelibly linked to the well rounded characters, and It’s A Sin feels like a window into a whirlwind of the lives of a generation. Hold on tightly as you watch.
Words by Mike Record