Over the years many writers and performers have been involved with projects that shed light on the HIV/AIDs crisis that began in the 1980s. In films such as Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club, A-listers Tom Hanks, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto have all found Oscar glory portraying characters affected by this. However it’s not just the silver screen that has seen attention given to this tragic moment in history. Shows such as Ryan Murphy’s Pose and Netflix’s Glow, as well as 80s UK TV drama Intimate Contact have all tackled this topic in varying degrees of detail but now it’s the turn of Years & Years front man Olly Alexander. He leads Russell T Davies’ brand new LGBTQ+ drama It’s a Sin, which sees five friends living in London during the 80s amidst the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Davies is no stranger to LGBTQ+ television having previously created Queer as Folk, countless other gay dramas, as well as offering his queer influence to the reboot series of sci-fi classic Doctor Who. His new drama is divided into five episodes which can be watched weekly on Channel 4 or binged all at once on All 4, a method of viewing that should come with an emotional warning because It’s a Sin is one of the most powerful pieces of television you will ever watch.
Over its five episode run It’s a Sin spans around a decade of the lives of our characters as they embark on the next stage of their life, each of them full of hopes, dreams and ambitions. Leading star Alexander portrays Ritchie Tozer who gleefully exclaims “I just want to be happy” at the end of episode one, but as viewers we know that Ritchie’s world is about to change forever as HIV/AIDS is about to define this decade for a generation of gay men. Davies’ drama serves as both entertainment (there are some fantastic moments of comedy featured) but also as vital education on a moment in history that is drastically under taught and ignored by many.
It’s a Sin excellently tackles the tragic lack of HIV/AIDS information available during the 80s and the optimistic ignorance that occurred as a result. The drama demonstrates how little everyone knew and understood about this virus and it shows us on many occasions the direct and heartbreaking consequences of this. It also captures the real fear that everyone had about this illness both from within the queer community and that from outside it. The fear that many had from outside only exacerbated the already existing homophobia making victims of HIV/AIDS even less likely to speak out and seek the help and care that they required. It’s a Sin tells the stories of so many men who this was the case for and beautifully pays tribute to them.
On top of the superb education that It’s a Sin provides regarding HIV/AIDS it takes things a step further by also including numerous other important elements of queer history. Many of which could be the focus of their very own episode or series. The homophobia rampant in the healthcare sector, the laws created and enforced fuelled by discrimination, police brutality and the invasive and unfair line of questioning that gay men could be exposed to for things such as applying for a mortgage. The inclusion of these elements beyond the specific physical effects of HIV/AIDS enriches this drama in terms of its educational potential but also in its storytelling power, further reminding audiences of the injustices and reality for many queer people living in this period of time.
The cruellest thing about the HIV/AIDS epidemic was that it robbed so many of the life they deserved to live but despite this, It’s a Sin is full of life, laughter, joy and energy and much of this credit has to be given to the outstanding cast who give their all to this remarkable drama. It’s a Sin has impressive guest appearances from Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry and the likes of Keeley Hawes star in supporting roles; however it’s the main cast of relative unknowns who will capture your heart and soul. Olly Alexander as Ritchie, Omari Douglas as Roscoe, Callum Scott Howells as Colin, Nathaniel Curtis as Ash and Lydia West as Jill make up the main recurring cast and each and every one of them is fabulous. Their portrayal of this amazing group of friends offers a multicultural, interclass range of individuals that also represents a range of different types of gay men and their allies. However, it is Lydia West’s portrayal of Jill which shines brightest. Her performance conveys Jill’s allyship to the queer community so effectively and carries a lot of the emotional weight of the drama. As an ensemble though, there truly is no weak link here and as a result, this group of characters will be much loved and cherished forever.
These performances go a long way in creating the authentic feel of the drama, no doubt enhanced by the fact that all of the gay characters are played by gay performers. There is a larger ongoing debate about the casting of gay characters, however, in this instance it’s undeniable that it has helped immeasurably having gay actors telling gay stories. Davies’ drama also feels authentic in its ability to create the feel of the 80s, this is achieved through costume and set design, but it’s the soundtrack which maybe helps convey this best. The synthy pop beats that feature throughout the episodes both mark the era of the drama, but also stay true to gay culture. There’s too many to list in full but with the inclusion of hits from the likes of The Pet Shop Boys, Blondie, Queen, Eurythmics and Belinda Carlisle on the soundtrack It’s a Sin both injects energy into its story and offers a wave of nostalgia for those who grew up with these now much-loved queer classics. Ultimately it’s also responsible for showcasing the queer joy and richness of the life that was lived in this period, something that it would be an injustice to ignore.
That’s what this drama does so well though; it balances life and death so delicately. It shows lives lived with such fervour that could be stripped away so abruptly and unfairly. The juxtaposition of queer joy and pain is something the LGBTQ+ community know all too well and It’s a Sin does tremendously well, in contextualising this within the era of the HIV/AIDS crisis. We watch as queer individuals from different backgrounds find their chosen families but then are forced to endure suffering on a heartbreaking level. It’s this harsh but necessary retelling of one of the most important eras in gay history, and specifically gay history in the UK, that makes It’s a Sin essential viewing for everybody. By bringing this conversation firmly into the spotlight Davies’ has given hope to those who are still harmed by the stigma of HIV/AIDS today, offering audiences a catalyst for further education into an issue that everyone should know more about.
It’s a Sin unites different generations of the queer community, making HIV/AIDS education accessible for all and is nothing less than an outstanding milestone in queer television history.
It’s a Sin is currently available on All4 in the UK and comes to HBO Max in the US on February 18 2021.