Though the height of the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, the virus and those who died at its hands are being allotted more coverage and reverence today than when young men were dying by the thousands. The bleak and dismal fates of many gay men on the streets of New York and San Francisco were though to be of little importance by many. Russel T. Davies, creator and writer of HBO Max’s smash hit, "It’s A Sin", offers compensation of sorts. The show is set in London, and bits of joy are infused in every episode as the viewer comes to know and love each of the show’s vibrant characters.
Audiences are first introduced to Ritchie (Olly Alexander), an 18-year-old from the Isle of Wight who struggles to come to terms with his sexuality under his parents’ conservative views. We are next introduced to Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a recent runaway from his extremely religious Nigerian parents who don’t approve of his “choice.” Colin (Calum Scott Howells) rounds out the group as an awkward but lovable employee at a men’s tailor shop. Introduced at a gay bar by Jill Baxter (Lydia West) and living in an apartment affectionately titled the Pink Palace, each of these men begin to find themselves and their place in London’s neon gay scene set to disco’s greatest hits.
The series begins as a euphoric rollercoaster ride of acceptance and celebration, though Davies keeps the anxiety of the quickly nearing epidemic in viewers' minds. Audiences are struck with bits of information left and right as they experience the mishandling of data the same way Ritchie and his friends would have. The same puzzle pieces given to the characters are strewn together haphazardly, with talks of a “gay flu” or multiple gay men dying in the same place at the exact same time, just as they would have been in the 80s, as misinformation and blatant ignorance was widespread. "If we had heterosexual boys dying in these numbers, the world would have stopped. There’d be uproar, there’d be riots,” Baxter’s mother laments, and she would be right. Yet many straight people were all too happy to sweep whatever “disease” this was under the rug because it seemingly could not affect them, as the AIDS virus only affected the “dirty”. This mindset caused many of the men infected to feel such deep-rooted shame, as though they were being punished for loving who they did.
Davies does not leave this humiliation on the men affected, though; instead he transfers it to those who made these men feel so utterly alone in their struggles, as the mothers and fathers of those lying in hospital beds are often painted throughout the series as the villains of their sons’ stories through their blatant disregard or willful ignorance of their son’s sexuality.
"It's A Sin" is neither purely a sugar-coated coming out story nor a dismal projection of blame. While the series consists of both those aspects, it blends them together and the result is one of both appreciation and mourning for the gay community. It forces the viewer to consider how much could have been done for them with the correct resources or even a smidgen of support. Instead they were left to dangerous home remedies such as consuming battery acid or drinking their own urine. The five episodes are a balancing act, and a bold one at that, shifting from delight to despair as Davies attempts to offer a hopeful light to those afflicted. He does not shy away from the darker aspects of the disease such as senility, or the less noticeable symptoms like the guilt of transferring AIDS to, and possibly killing, others.
Another bold choice for Davies was to set the series in London, a less frequently mentioned area in regards to AIDS, as many stories are from New York. While those watching Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin’s adventures on BBC would be all too familiar with the aspects of the spread in the United Kingdom, Americans watch a picturesque city of fantasy become a nightmarish scene of death. The characters, too young to know how to grieve, are forced to try their hardest.
Even as AIDS hits America, our Londoners still feel as though they are invincible—a disease that just affects gay men sounds impossible. Each character carries on with their lives, still having sex, unaware of its possible consequences. When exploring a relationship with someone from his hometown, Richie is rejected because he now lives in London, to which Ritchie hauntingly implores “It’s Americans you don’t sleep with...There’s nothing wrong with boys from London!”
Even Margaret Thatcher—or at least the back of her head—makes an appearance, alluding to her Section 28 condemnation of homosexuality, weaving in the UK’s contribution to the heavy stigma weighing on the shoulders of the gay community. "It's A Sin" shows that New York and San Francisco were not the only cities with hospital wings filled to the brim with young men, their lives cut immeasurably short.
Set over a span of ten years, viewers watch as these characters grow and change, as their understanding of themselves and the world around them shifts from a fantastical dream world of acceptance to a black hole of death and shame.
Jill Baxter, the series' darling, possibly based on a close friend of Davies’, is the first one to suspect that AIDS may be more sinister than what many in London are determined to believe. After the gang’s friend Gregory, affectionately called Gloria, contracts the virus, Jill is the only one allowed to know and subsequently take care of him. Her selflessness is highlighted throughout the series. She wears gloves and masks reminiscent of today's pandemic, and thoroughly scrubs mugs and dishes as if she could kill the virus with enough soap, hot water, and will. Viewers mostly see the dark side of the virus through Jill’s eyes as she works at an AIDS helpline and visits those in hospitals who do not have anyone to come see them. Jill is constantly seeking out information to give her friends and holding rallies to help those in need that often her own story becomes eclipsed by becoming a device of news for the residents of the Pink Palace.
Davies includes moments of both ecstasy and despair because life can never be black and white—there must be gray. Rich friendships and booked TV appearances stand in stark contrast to sobbing lovers and burning baby pictures. Even Ritchie, when contemplating the state of his friends and those they’ve lost, states: “That’s what people will forget, that it was so much fun”. Davies does his best to encapsulate the “fun” that Ritchie and his friends had. There are incredible parties and small, impactful moments over breakfast that only roommates can share. There are first loves and parents asking for forgiveness. Davies does not cast a shadow where there is no light, but there is a shadow nonetheless. Tear-inducing monologues fill each episode as Ritchie and his friends wonder how their actions could have caused such devastation.
"It's A Sin" is surely a triumph for the new streaming service as increasingly positive reviews keep rolling in for HBO Max’s show full of incredible performances.