From the beginning of It’s a Sin, the show’s ending is foreseeable. And yet it’s impossible to resist hoping for a different outcome: in a city plagued by AIDS, maybe these gay men we’ve come to know and love can make it out of the epidemic unscathed. Maybe government officials—and, inherently, the rest of the world—will take notice of the crisis as it unfolds and try to do something to help these men. But, no; Russell T. Davies’ limited HBO Max series It’s a Sin is a tragic, albeit masterful, retelling of the AIDS epidemic. Introducing a hearty slew of characters, the series sends viewers through an electric tizzy of nightclubs, parties, and sex, all with a coming-of-age togetherness that binds us to this ensemble of wild young folks.
We find everyone at a turning point in their lives: Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a lanky student new to London, drops his law degree to pursue acting. Feeling stir-crazy, Roscoe (Omari Douglas) splits from his family home to a city that is just as high-fashion and high-energy as he is. And then there is Colin (Callum Scott Howells), sweet Colin, who is just so pleased by his new job at a tailor’s. It’s the little things in life, right? Tagging along in their adventures are Jill (Lydia West), their guardian angel and best girlfriend, and Ritchie’s on-again off-again boyfriend Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Starting with Ritchie and Jill at uni, the group begins to come together around London, at clubs, bars, apartment parties, becoming a larger and larger group of friends as they do. Then they’re crashing in an apartment together, tossing around witty nicknames and cups of tea.
And they’re sleeping around—they’re sleeping around a lot. Especially Ritchie, whose burgeoning confidence shines in his physicality, his stage acting, and his sense of humor. When Jill asks him if he’s considered putting his sex life on hold, as murmurs of a sexually-transmitted virus slink around London, he pivots the conversation elsewhere. A virus that only affects gay men? Unbelievably homophobic, Ritchie dismisses. But some of the crew has witnessed AIDS firsthand, and Jill won’t turn a blind eye to the dilemma. When Colin flies to New York on a work trip, she presses a few bills into his hand to buy her papers, books, anything about AIDS.
While Jill pokes around for new insight, the others carry on with being young, reckless, and driven—as 20-somethings are wont to do. Along with her activism, the show also explores the HIV/AIDS illness as it unfurls in gay clubs and communities around the city—though it never villainizes or blames them for the crisis. Despite being a series almost entirely about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, It’s a Sin does not dawdle in statistics or tragedy. By energizing the show with a spirited cast, a storyline about growing up, and plenty of scenes that follow the joy of their kinship, Davies has created a tale that can entertain while still spotlighting an imperative point of discussion. It’s a Sin balances devastation with the vivaciousness of being young in a big city, two separate tones that are perfectly effective foils for one another.
The main three lads—Ritchie, Colin, and Roscoe—are also expertly juxtaposed as three gay men who fit so well on-screen together, but have their own distinct sense of self. Ritchie is anxious at first, but suave as he comes into his own, while Roscoe is charming from start to finish. Roscoe brings flair and fashion to the room, whereas Ritchie prefers biting humor. Colin arrives late to the party, but his prim and proper politeness shines through every room of their ramshackled apartment. For a kid who’s so excited to earn a set of work keys (not even a raise; just a set of keys), one can only imagine Colin’s merriment about a new group of friends. Alexander, Douglas, and Howells embody the happiness in their characters as well as they display the sadness, fear, and desperation brought by years grappling with the AIDS crisis. As a decade passes in the span of five 45-minute episodes, these characters have all clearly aged quite a bit.
Even the side characters, who pop in and out of episodes as time passes, grab hold of the narrative with their own individual stories. Their arcs are just as devastating, if not more, than the leads of the show. Neil Patrick Harris plays Colin’s fast-talking mentor, Henry Coltrane; just as quickly as we fall in love with his upbeat words of guidance, we are forced to say goodbye to him. Gregory, nicknamed Gloria, is the goofy landlord at the crew’s apartment, though he’s almost a roommate himself. Every single character in the series is family. They are there to lean on one another and to fight the epidemic together. In It’s a Sin, everyone is important, making the smaller losses just as difficult as the major ones.
Viewers may find it easy to liken It’s a Sin to our current situation amidst a global pandemic. When we hear the phrase “I’m clean” it may sound a lot like, “I tested negative.” There’s that feeling that the disease is anywhere, creeping around corners, ready to catch you if you’re not masked or protected. The feeling of immeasurable loss may result in full body shivers. But resist that urge to connect the AIDS crisis to our current pandemic. It’s a Sin is clearly about the prejudice and loss faced by the gay community. The AIDS epidemic (notably different from a pandemic) was—and often, still is—largely ignored. They address this in It’s a Sin: “People would be talking about this if it was with straight boys,” Jill says. Note the difference between the yearslong fight to seek awareness for AIDS, versus COVID, which only took a few months to consume the global consciousness. While it may feel the same, the distinction between these two illnesses actually highlights the point It’s a Sin is making.
Even though the ending is easy to see coming, there are still moments that will leave you breathless. There are twists, shocking revelations, and plights that come out of left field. And, again, you’ll feel that stinging pang of remorse to know what’s to come for this ebullient group of folks who, in all honesty, deserve the world and nothing less. It’s a Sin introduces a noteworthy cast of characters that feel like they should have their very own HBO series, like Girls or Euphoria, following them as zany young folk exploring a new city. A one-shot, limited series of five episodes feels far too short. But such is the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. These are just a handful of stories in the near 800,000 lives lost worldwide to the illness, and just one community of folks affected out of thousands elsewhere. It’s a Sin deserves more time with its lively crew of characters, just like all of the other lives lost to the epidemic.
All five episodes of It’s a Sin will be available to stream on HBO Max on Thursday, February 18th.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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