A cardinal rule of British TV - Russell T Davies is a genius. Whether it’s his BBC drama Years and Years or Queer as Folk, his shows encapsulate every human emotion in a timeless manner. In the Channel 4 series, It’s a Sin (which was recently made available for streaming on HBO Max), these emotions are both timeless and about time, dealing with loss and tragedy at the time of an epidemic. Seem familiar?
What is the story about?
Beginning in 1981, we see the impending AIDS epidemic take the streets of London through the eyes of a group of young men. There’s Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), a bright-eyed law student from the Isle of Wights; Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas) who grows tired of his Nigerian parents trying to “cleanse him with prayer” and struts off with a swagger and a royal middle finger. Colin Morris-Jones is an apprentice at an upmarket clothing store, and all of them are under the watchful wing of Jill who is the mama bear of their scruffy apartment, ‘The Pink Palace.’ A mysterious disease seems to be setting in from America which only affects gay men. It seems ludicrous initially, and everyone ignores the warnings except Jill. But when the group starts losing their people one by one, the audience too has to come to terms with losing some stunning underappreciated souls. The biggest tragedy of ‘It’s a Sin’ is what Jill tells Mrs Tozer. It’s the cruelty of shame that kills these men, their inability to be themselves and love themselves for who they are.
It’s a Sin is love, sex, joy, agony, laughter, and anger, all rolled into one. Yes, it has lighter moments… some of which inevitably fit into the unique and refreshing candour of being a ‘bender’ in the 1980s. But as the series progresses, it is also extremely excruciatingly painful to watch these ambitious and happy youngsters, and some complete strangers, cope with a scary new disease that they understand so little about. It is a welcome thing itself to place the show in London, because we so often see the perspective of people living in New York or San Francisco as they coped with the oncoming of AIDS. But the show’s real fulcrum is the shame, disbelief, and denial of its central characters, which is extremely pertinent in 2021.
It’s a Sin is as much about its helpers as it is just about its victims. Jill is based on Davies’ childhood friend Jill Nader who really did live in a Pink Palace in the 1980s and really did double up as his helper. She plays the fictional Jill’s mom in a wonderfully apt cameo. Jill’s whole arc is one of the many stories about the people who stepped up with their unconditional love when the dying men’s real mums couldn’t be there for them. There’s Ash, the Indian bloke who develops a warmth with Richie and constantly sticks by the group. There are some more friends and volunteers and people who march in the streets for the cause. A lawyer shows up representing the victims in human rights cases, there are some wonderful nurses who care for them, and finally, there is a host of sweet and supportive mummies and daddies who hold on to their children’s hands even after they say goodbye. There are some other mothers who aren’t as supportive and understanding, but there is still love in their beliefs of ignorance.
There is immense nuance in the way Alexander carries the leaning-Tory but promiscuous Ritchie. He has a boyish charm but inspirational tenacity throughout the series. He is the character who keeps the group tied, but all the actors are clever and vivacious, even in their most vulnerable positions. West is exceptional with her concern and love for her friends.
Music & Other Departments
The music of the show reflects the open vibrancy of the time. New Wave classics like Pet Shop Boys, Blondie, and Erasure make up the soundtrack. The show bursts with the vivid sound and colour of sexuality and freedom. The set pieces play characters in the flow of the story. And some scenes serve as camera monologues to explain the strange predicament of the time.
Of course, there is a vibrancy to the colour and light used in the show, but it doesn’t shy away from making a strong political comment about the image of the epidemic in public as it existed then. This is mainly done by insidiously homophobic people like married MPs at the House of Commons, who dine in arm-in-arm with their male lovers. We first spend considerable time exploring the free and fun gay scene of London, and then these characters become our friends, only to watch their slow miserable deaths.
To a certain extent, the onus of reflecting upon the epidemic is in the hands of the unassuming white boys, so the show may do some disservice to the people of colour or those from the minority. By showing that AIDS finally affected only the upper-middle-class boys, it suggests that those from the middle to low income don’t have a sub-struggle to deal with. Still, Davies manages to look at both sides of coming out - one lavish and one simple.
Did I enjoy it?
Yes, binged it in one go. And cried. A Lot.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. It was real but it was also heart-breaking. Watch it as a human drama or as a hismanifesto. Neither is disappointing.