How do you tell the story of an entire lost generation? Do you talk about the loved ones they left behind or the institutions that failed them? Do you mourn the time they never got, or celebrate the memories they made? It’s a Sin, the fantastic new limited series from Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk), makes room for all of these conversations while exploring the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of a group of flatmates in London, but it makes sure to do one other thing above all else. Unlike so many other HIV/AIDS narratives, It’s a Sin grounds itself in joy from beginning to end.
This isn’t to say that the series, which is reportedly based in part on Davies and his friends’ real experiences, makes light of its subject matter. By the end of the drama’s five episodes, I realized I’d burned through just as many tear-stained tissues. It’s a Sin builds in layers of heartbreak, shame, and anger, but woven between them are also the hallmarks of youth and the type of freedom that only a queer found family can bring: easy love, heart-pounding fun, and a vitality that no death sentence can erase.
The series follows Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), Jill (Lydia West), and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) from 1981 to 1991. Jill and Ash have been living in the city, but we’re given backstories for the other three, all transplants. Outgoing Ritchie heads to London from his hometown on the Isle of Wight, leaving behind a gruff father who warns him not to knock up any girls. He starts off in law school but quickly falls in love with acting. Roscoe, fiery and strong-willed, storms out of his house after his Nigerian parents’ religious intervention culminates with a plan to send him to Africa. Sweetly private Colin takes a job at a tailor and phones his mom back in Wales. All three are gay, and by the end of the first episode, the group has moved in together.
The subject of HIV/AIDS looms in the background of It’s a Sin from the very beginning. It’s first described as a rare form of cancer, but misinformation is so rampant that when word of it finally does reach the show’s core group, they aren’t inclined to believe it. Series director Peter Hoar (Daredevil) finds stirring ways to create visuals that reflect the ever-shifting mood of the moment for LGBT+ youth in the 1980s. The second episode includes an exuberant scene in which Ritchie denounces the idea of a gay virus, first to his friends and then directly to the camera, in a series of quick-shifting scenes. It’s a clever bit of filmmaking that both contextualizes the lack of public attention HIV/AIDS received during pivotal early years and characterizes Ritchie as someone who relishes the affections of a new man every night. “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it! I don’t believe a word of it!” he declares, each line punctuated by a kiss with a different stranger.
It’s a Sin is largely grounded in realism, but some of its best and most pointed scenes shimmer with an air of heightened drama like this one. While it lets each of its talented leads triumph, the show is anchored by Olly Alexander’s exquisite, multifaceted performance as the group’s most flawed and love-hungry member. In each episode, Ritchie outdoes himself with another indelible moment, embodying the vibrancy — and stubbornness — of a free-spirited culture that refused to be contained to hospital beds. Lydia West is also fantastic as Jill, the sole woman of the group, who learns about the reality of HIV/AIDS before her friends do and becomes, in turn, a quiet caretaker and an outspoken advocate.
Davies’ vision is far-ranging in scope, exploring not only a decade in the lives of these friends but also a decade of changes in the way gay people in the UK were viewed in the eyes of the public. It charts the passage of time with on-the-nose needle drops but also with incremental scientific steps forward and massive cultural and political steps backward. Those who aren’t intimately familiar with the setting will be incensed to learn about real homophobic legislature, like Section 28, which banned content that “promoted homosexuality” in schools, and the Public Health Act of 1984, which was sometimes used to detain AIDS patients. There are scenes of families and healthcare workers scrubbing down personal spaces and burning belongings. There are scenes of men attempting risky, unscientific at-home remedies, such as tasting battery acid, to prevent transmission. There are numerous confused and helpless discussions of the virus as cancer or an infection, or as something to be caught via animals or foreigners.
Davies isn’t particularly interested in exploring the politics and policies that led to the AIDS epidemic. Instead, he focuses on the very real and overwhelming personal impact of such a badly mishandled crisis. The characters may become more educated over time, but their knowledge doesn’t make them invincible. By the late 1980s, the flatmates’ calendars are full of funeral dates. Like anyone living through a major crisis, though, their lives go on. In the first episode, the three newcomers to the city are asked where they want to be in five to ten years. Across just five episodes, we see them through those ten years, gaining an intimate perspective of a historical time period that’s often shown in birds-eye.
There needn’t be a hierarchy of HIV/AIDS-related stories. Every story about AIDS — from the clinically factual to the emotionally devastating — matters, because every story about AIDS is a living memorial. Among them, It’s a Sin stands out as an enthusiastic monument to the thousands of people who breathed in as much life as they could for as long as they could. It’s beautiful, painful, and unforgettable.