It’s A Sin is a five episode series that delves into London’s gay urban life in the 1980’s just as the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) epidemic takes countless lives of the community. At the heart of the series is its humanity and humour as the show gives us a glimpse into London’s gay community from 1981 to 1991.
The creator of the show Russell T Davis had created another show previously called Queer As Folk which was a riotous celebration of gay urban life as led by the three characters broadly representing different stages of exploration as they embraced life as hot single men. It is a gorgeous fantasy that takes you away from the historic worthiness and prejudice that surrounds such choices.
It’s A Sin takes a different turn. While Queer As Folk did not look at the darkness out of which such freedom emerges, the darkness that very much shadowed the lives of the community that lived there is explored in It’s A Sin, without losing it’s gusto, irreverence or joy, as it takes us through the lives of four friends Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Jill, and Ash Mukherjee.
While the show is about the AIDS epidemic, it never takes away from the triumphs, heart breaks and loss of these four characters. The sense of belonging that prompts this family of four to live, laugh, cry, discover themselves and their sexuality. We watch them make mistakes and live their lives to the fullest, all of which takes place amidst and circles back to the AIDS epidemic.
It’s A Sin is about first love, heartache, hysteria, euphoria, pain, loss, gain, family, friendship and love. For a large majority of the LGBTQIA+ youth the acceptance of their identity is often difficult and the formal revelation to the world makes adolescence a much harder period to navigate as non conformity is unconventional in the conservative adult world. This was especially true in the 1980s Britain, which sets the context of the series, during an epidemic that mostly shamed the gay community and was coined The Gay Epidemic. It’s A Sin helps to unpack some of the complexities faced by individuals in understanding alternative experiences, and understanding themselves and their place in the world.
It’s a Sin begins with a kaleidoscopic approach to the characters in the story – the closeted Richie (Olly Alexander), who moves to London from his small town on an island off the coast of England, the bashful Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who gets his first job in a fancy menswear store, Roscoe (Omari Douglas)who leaves home after his family tries to convert him with prayer and community shaming. They all move to London for various reasons and then meet Jill (Lydia West), and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and there’s an immediate sense that their stories will be stitched together.
The four men live together as one in an apartment, loving and chasing their dreams, exploring themselves and their sexuality, but they’re caught in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. It’s A Sin is also a celebration of freedom and carnality.
The show’s greatest success is the depiction of personhood which is treated with compassion, empathy and humanity in a way that understands the core of relationships, their inherent misgivings, and flawed humanity. There is a scene in the hospital when Richie is in bed with AIDS and he tells Jill “”I thought I’d stop, and I did a lot of times. I stopped. A million times. I wonder how many I killed. I knew it was wrong, and I kept on doing it.” Then, to us as much as Jill he asks, “Do you hate me now?”
The truth is that people are messy, complicated and wrong most of the times. It’s A Sin gives space for this human error in action and judgement. There is room for the characters to falter and not be judged for it. Terrible things are done but in the end there is forgiveness even in tragedy.
What makes this show heartbreakingly honest and wonderful is how brutally it lays out the story. We know that despair is coming, but it refuses to let the characters not live their lives to the fullest. We constantly are shown the stories these character should have had, the lives they should have lived, the adventures that should have been theirs. The stories they were robbed off because of a disease and a community that refused to accept them, a society that refused to allow them stories they allowed generations of straight White men to have.
The series pulsates with new wave music and bursts with sex, sometimes hot, other times tender and awkward, and the mood is filled to the brim with rebellion, promise and opportunity. These characters begin to discover themselves in clubs and bars, finding their place and falling in and out of love. The constant companionship they have is their friendship, greeting each other not by hello but with a very sweet and adorable “LAA!”
We are first introduced to AIDS in the margins, in quiet whispers when Colin, who has befriended Patrick O Neil’s character visits him in the hospital. A gentle man who has lived with his boyfriend for thirty years dies alone in the hospital after they both fall ill and that is how we are introduced to the disease.
It’s A Sin creates real, flawed and entirely credible bundles of humanity even in moments of sermon or preachiness. The fact that we’re living through a pandemic makes it relatable in the sense that one can empathise with the uncertainty, fear and rational and irrational responses to a new health crisis. Richie favours denial while Jill, in her slight distance from what was seen by many as the “Gay Plague” dives into information, trying to find out everything there is about the disease. We can also identify with endless, mindless joys coming to a painful halt, the jostling within oneself of reason and madness, and the wrestling with woefully inadequate and incompetent government responses to a proliferating crisis much like what is happening right now in the country.
It’s A Sin is unsurprisingly heavy but it never feels weighed down by its subject, the series is furious, it celebrates life and mourns those who lost it because of an epidemic.
The parallels between the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID pandemic are eerily similar. People’s disbelief with the current pandemic is similar to what happened during in Britain in the 1980’s. It is uncanny how history repeats itself and how misinformation is so prevalent at all times.
The parallels in the politics in Britain at the time that plays out in the series as it lashes out at the indifference and the hostility of the outside world to the lives being lost. It laments the young men who lost their lives and critiques the internalised shame and self loathing that took place over and over. Many characters stress that they’re “clean,” as distinguished from the “dirty” men who they believe fall victim to the disease.
“The Wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying!” Jill tells Valerie in a scene. “And a little bit of them thinks, Yes this is right. I brought this on myself; It’s my fault.”
The marginalisation of the queer community in the United Kingdom and the refusal to see queer lives as valuable and joyful is a persistent narrative in the series. It’s A Sin is a beautiful, tragic, must watch show that will make you laugh and cry and fall deeply and madly in love with the characters.
Featured Image Source: Cool Music