It’s a Sin: Davies’ new series is heart-wrenching, enlightening, but above all, joyous
By Jake Yates-Hart 25 February 2021
Image Courtesy of Channel 4.
Despite what the general viewer might think, Queer people are still notoriously under-represented in the media. Whether that be film, television, music or literature, Queer people (especially Queer people of colour) are often left on the backburner, our stories untold.
Sure, there’s been genuine attempts in recent years to introduce Queer people into mainstream media, but it often ends with mixed results: Glee had a difficult time writing the proudly flamboyant gay character, Kurt, often toeing the line between creating a positive role model or a harmful cliché; RuPaul’s Drag Race sheds a light on how LGBTQ+ people can become a chosen family but has recently come under heavy criticism for its unfair treatment against queens of colour; Queer Eye has emphasised the importance of self-love and acceptance, but the extent to which the Fab Five really help people has been questioned.
For me at least, there have only been two shows that have accurately represented what it is like to be Queer. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of them, which gave one of its main characters a realistic coming out storyline. The other, Pose, which beautifully captured the Ball scene in 1980’s/1990’s New York, and starred a predominantly Black Trans cast which were disgracefully snubbed at the Emmys. But now, It’s a Sin makes three.
Created by Russell T Davies for Channel 4, It’s a Sin follows the lives of Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), four Gay men living in London along with their straight friend, Jill (Lydia West), as they enter one of the darkest periods in LGBTQ+ history. In the same vein of Pose, It’s a Sin sheds light on the British AIDS crisis of the 80’s. The five-episode miniseries sees this band of misfits embracing their sexual identity in a decade which was rife with homophobia and a virus that, according to UNAIDS, claimed the lives of 690, 000 people in 2019.
The series starts off light enough: It’s 1981, and Ritchie is heading off to London for university, away from his family for the first time ever. Like with many closeted Gay men under similar circumstances, Ritchie is itching to explore his sexuality in ways he never could at home. This includes a steamy and wonderful sex montage, wherein Ritchie’s confidence grows as he partakes in oral and anal sex and threesomes. The sex scenes in the pilot are authentic as well as explicit, and really hits it home that the show is a spiritual successor to Davies’ other ground-breaking drama, Queer as Folk. Both series follow the lives of gay men navigating sex, love, and friendships, but It’s a Sin dives deep into the darkness of the AIDS epidemic, and its effect on Queer people.
Whilst Ritchie and Roscoe make the decision to leave their homes in search of a better life (the former coming from a quietly homophobic family, the latter from a strict Nigerian household), Colin makes his way to London from Wales to begin his new job at a tailor’s. There, he quickly befriends Henry (played by the always charismatic Neil Patrick Harris), an older man, that along with his partner Pablo, become sort-of mentors for Colin, who assure him he is not alone as a gay man. The pilot makes great work at establishing these characters, but the shadows of darker times already begin to creep in. Midway through the episode, we learn that Pablo’s mother has taken him back to Portugal, and Henry is in hospital for… well, no one really knows.
The pilot ends with the five friends, now living in a flat together (dubbed the Pink Palace), excitedly pondering what the future has in store for them. Ritchie decides to pursue acting; Roscoe is offered more responsibilities working at the pub; and Colin is advised to be more assertive at his job. They are young gay men in London looking forward to what the next 10 years have in store. Smash cut to an isolated ward of the hospital, where we find Henry has died from a rare cancer, alone. Yes, Davies isn’t afraid to entwine his signature irreverence and dry wit into the series, but once we see Henry’s body rolled away in a steel coffin, we know that at its core, It’s a Sin is a raw and heart-breaking drama about the effects of a virus that has been largely misunderstood.
Indeed, as the series rolls along, AIDS and HIV becomes an increasingly prevalent concern for our protagonists. How the virus entwines itself in the narrative is subtle enough. First, we hear in conversations between background characters about some ‘cancer thing’ killing dozens of gay men in New York. Soon though, the virus’ existence becomes a regular debate in the gay scene, with interesting parallels to the discourses of present day about COVID-19. Whereas Ritchie favours denial, even monologuing about the rumours that initially surrounded this ‘gay cancer’ in a stylishly directed scene, Jill arms herself with as much knowledge as she can about AIDS, which at the time, wasn’t a lot.
Each episode propels a few years into the decade, pushing the story the forward. From learning that an acquaintance has suddenly returned home after becoming ill, attending funerals of loved ones soon becomes the norm for the Pink Palace residents as we delve deeper into the 80’s. In a heart-breaking sequence, the group learn that one of their own has AIDS. He starts to become senile, a devastating turn as he worries that his illness means he’s ‘dirty.’ It’s a Sin works well as the Queer drama it is, offering a realistic depiction of a decade filled with suffering for LGBTQ+ people, but it also provides some much need education on HIV and AIDS that I was ignorant of myself. I had no idea HIV could cause dementia, nor that families of AIDS victims would go so far as to burn their possessions as a way of ‘getting rid’ of the disease.
Stigma, fearmongering, and ignorance is what held back so many gay men from getting tested for HIV and AIDS in the 80’s, and still remains a problem today. But Davies makes it his mission to show there is light at the end of the tunnel. We see Jill, a straight woman, show nothing but love and understanding to these gay men, some of which are too scared to even get tested as they don’t want to be hit with the reality of what they’re dealing with. From helping her peers that are too sick to carry on their chores, to being by their bedside as they pass away, Jill represents the very best of humanity. She even ignites a spark in each of her friends to join a mass demonstration against Thatcher’s government that introduced Section 28 which removed LGBTQ+ educational material from schools during such a crucial time in Queer history.
It's a Sin is a masterpiece of television; the writing, direction and performances are all on point. The loss, grief and alienation from our protagonists is so palpable, you can feel it. The main and recurring cast are excellent in their roles, but the standouts of the series are Alexander and West, whose chemistry helps carry the latter half of the show. As you might expect from an AIDS drama, we don’t necessarily get a happy ending in the show’s closing chapter. Nor is it an entirely miserable one. There’s tears, and laughter. There’s grief, and acceptance. Davies creates a perfect blend of light and dark that encapsulates the decade exceptionally. In fact, in the finale, one character says as much. He says to his mother, reflecting on the last 10 years as he dies from AIDS, “I had so much fun. That’s what people forget. That it was so much fun.”
It’s a Sin is available to stream on All 4.