‘It’s a Sin’ Poignantly Looks at London’s Gay Community in the Early Days of the AIDS Epidemic

It’s a Sin” exuberantly follows a group of friends at the dawn of changing times. Set in 1980s London, it recalls a time when being gay meant still being forced by society into the closet, while facing the emergence of the AIDS epidemic and all the fresh prejudice that came with it. We are now at 40 years since the epidemic officially began to be recorded. Beyond facts and figures, real lives were being experienced in those uncertain first years. This five-part limited series captures the spirit of finding a home among others undergoing the same trials and tribulations, as well as the heartbreak life then bestows.

Creator Russell T. Davies focuses on four main characters. Ritchie (Olly Alexander), who hails from the Isle of Wight and seeks a career in acting, he soon makes friends with Jill (Lydia West). Roscoe (Omari Douglas) comes from an extremely religious family of Nigerian immigrants, who know he’s gay and wish to cast it out. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) defines friendly but suffers sexual harassment from his boss at men’s store, but is then helped by the savvier Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris). These four soon gravitate to the same London apartment which they christen “the Pink Palace.” Together they share and experience their individual stories involving trysts, doomed romances and finding the kind of family their own homes cannot provide. But when the AIDS crisis begins to slowly emerge, the gang is oblivious to the scope of it. 

Like most of Davies’s productions, “It’s a Sin” first aired in the UK before arriving on our shores through HBO Max. He’s a versatile showrunner who can do popular entertainment and serious drama, nonfiction and dystopia. Among his notable works are the revamped “Doctor Who,” “A Very English Scandal” and the intriguing “Years and Years,” which imagined a future UK run by a Trump-like populist. In contrast, “It’s a Sin” has a vivacious feel and energy. It doesn’t overdo the nostalgia aesthetic in trying to recreate the ‘80s (there are no VHS-style filters or titles), although the soundtrack is packed with recognizable hits from the era we’ve heard in many other shows. Instead it vividly conjures a time and place. More keenly, it creates characters that all have well-developed backstories and personalities. One of the hardest tasks in screenwriting is to make every persona sound real and distinct. Because Davies makes everyone at the London apartment stand out, once the epidemic strikes their lives the melancholy and sense of tragedy hits hard.

Before the epidemic truly makes itself felt, director Peter Hoar brilliantly captures lives in motion. These are characters inhabiting a particular kind of social underground, one where your sexual identity meant living double lives. Richie’s parents are conservatives who can’t ponder their son being gay, his alpha male dad even gives him a pack of condoms when seeing him off to London, advising he use them all. When they see Richie spending time with Jill they of course assume it must be his girlfriend. While Richie puts on a façade, other characters grapple with discrimination head-on. Colin goes on a business trip with his boss, who promptly fires him when he notices gay magazines in Colin’s room. For Roscoe moving out is a complete salvation from his preacher father who threatens to send him to Nigeria so they can make him straight. In hindsight the secrecy involved, including how gay men have to flirt by code in public places before a hook up, seems absurd in this (hopefully) more progressive era we’re living in. But this is how life was maneuvered by countless people. The writing also has sharp humor, both with general comedy and with sex. 

Where Jill comes into play is in being the member of the group who begins to see signs of the AIDS epidemic becoming something extremely dangerous. In the first episode a character dies, but no one seems to realize from what. They just assume it was cancer. When a tenant at the apartment comes down with the virus, Jill begins to investigate. Like Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” every individual we have come to know is suddenly swept into the social and personal consequences of what AIDS began to mean. Suddenly that one night stand where you both dismiss the need for protection becomes the instant your life changed forever, and you had no way of knowing in the moment. Rumors swirl in the air of how the disease is transmitted. A distraught mother asks her son in the hospital if it’s passed through spit. In a hauntingly striking scene we see the family of a victim burn all his belongings after he passes away. Another patient is encased in a steel casket at the hospital like the radiated dead firemen in “Chernobyl.” AIDS quickly became a stigma fiercely tagged on the gay community through a mixture of misinformation and old prejudices. 

“It’s a Sin” has a personal and intimate feel right up until the final episode. It doesn’t go for the big historical nods other dramas tend to use. There are no clips of Thatcher or Reagan, or constant chatter of current events in the dialogue. Davies’s characters just want to dance, find a good job and maybe fall in love, or at least feel desired. Two poignant death bed scenes have a powerful, poetic feel. In one a patient left vegetative by the effects of the virus on his system loses himself in memories of his last great sexual partner, in another a dying man confesses to his mother he’s gay, and regrets not for an instant having taken on lovers. He at least was able to be himself and live as he wished for a brief moment before succumbing to the disease. 

“It’s a Sin” may sound melancholy, but it celebrates life even as it meditates on what AIDS did to a community in those last two decades of the 20th century. The series opens in the ‘80s and ends in the early ‘90s, framing a generation. Every chapter moves briskly, because we feel as if we’re tagging along with this gang of outcasts. Somewhere in the world there is always someone feeling trapped by circumstance and unable to be themselves. A parable like this one is important for how it dramatizes the discrimination the gay community endured not so long ago. But it has the universal impact of reminding us why genuine friendship is essential, and why we are social beings. As the world comes out of a year when every continent felt the impact of a new health crisis, “It’s a Sin” focuses on how lives are being impacted and we would do better to help than to hate.

It’s a Sin” begins streaming Feb. 18 on HBO Max.