It's A Sin is providing insight into something that, even today, is often not talked about enough or in the right ways: AIDS.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
In the first five minutes of Russell T. Davies’ newest drama It’s A Sin, main character Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander of the band Years and Years) sets sail on a ferry from his home on the Isle of Wight, making the move to the Big Smoke and everything that London can offer him.
In a gesture of fatherly wisdom, Ritchie’s dad appears and hands him a pack of condoms, imparting his son with the warning, “Don’t want you getting some girl into trouble.” His father clearly has no idea how wrong he is about his son, and as Ritchie smiles knowingly and throws the pack into the sea, he clearly thinks he won’t need the protection his father’s gift offers him. With this one exchange, the scene is set for the incredible highs and crushing lows It’s A Sin has to offer.
At its centre, the five-part drama is about family and acceptance. Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) come from very different backgrounds, all struggling to fit in and hiding one pretty big secret - they’re gay. But as luck would have it, they find each other, and their friend Jill (Lydia West), based on Davies’ real-life friend and AIDs activist Jill Nalder (it’s worth mentioning that you can see Nalder in the drama itself; she plays Jill’s supportive mother), and quickly bond over shared experiences.
Outgoing Ritchie seeks openness and adventure away from his previous small-town life. Flamboyant Roscoe seeks escape and acceptance, after running away from his highly-religious family threatening to send him back to Nigeria, where engaging in homosexual activity was (and still is) punishable by death. And gentle Colin seeks belonging and purpose, as he moves from Wales to diligently pursue an apprenticeship in a tailor’s shop. All three are well-rounded and believable, with brilliant performances from their respective players.
The three young men find everything they want and more in each other, but when they’re thrown into a world of suspicion, secrecy and shame, that sadly isn’t all they find.
Russell T. Davies, who writes from a place of deep understanding having seen the epidemic first-hand as a gay man in 1980s Britain, weaves a masterpiece of a story over just five episodes. His intricate and harrowing knowledge really lends the drama a true sense of realism - this isn’t a celebration, nor a condemnation of the period. It’s a ‘warts and all’ exploration of what it was truly like to be looking down the barrel of your own mortality and not really know what you might find.
Some of the series’ more poignant moments take place in the AIDs ward of a hospital in London, where many of the gang’s friends and acquaintances inevitably end up. Every trip to the hospital feels like a social visit, as Jill pops into each room to say hello to yet another friend who’s dying of a disease that could have been more widely preventable, if not for the ignorance surrounding it. Eventually she spends so much time there that she knows each visiting family member, each doctor and nurse who comes and goes.
But the hospital is, of course, full of death. So little was known about the illness at the height of its reign that it’s impossible to know just how deadly it truly was for the men (and women) who suffered it. The series certainly makes it feel like a death sentence, with Ritchie even describing it as one in episode 5.
As the gang goes through their lives, the actors chosen to portray them truly do a remarkable job. Almost every one of them is believable in their role; lovable, flawed, and deeply empathetic. Nobody is perfect, but they’re real, and I’d suspect that this was Russell T. Davies’ true goal when he put together his stellar series.
Sadly, the character of Jill feels somewhat stunted as her only role in the show is to care for the boys while experiencing zero development of her own, and her script does not pass the Bechdel test. This is the only real criticism I can bring up, though it definitely is not a minor one.
The show features a stand-out and surprising performance from veteran actor Keeley Hawes, who plays the role of Ritchie’s mother. I didn’t expect to have so many feelings about her when I began the series, but by the end she was at the forefront of my mind. If Hawes does not receive a BAFTA nod for her work in this series, I may just eat my hat.
It’s hard to know whether it was an intention on the part of the writing team, but the messaging surrounding the illness in the show is incredibly recognisable in the current Covid-19 crisis we live in — this effect is shown most obviously in a long monologue by Ritchie, during which he spouts various conspiracy theories on AIDs (“It’s the Russians,” he declares at one point). The fear of an unknown illness taking the lives of thousands feels incredibly real to a modern audience and resonates deeply.
Overall, It’s A Sin truly delivers a gut-punch of pain combined with a spoonful of sugar at every turn. It is both uplifting and harrowing in equal doses, and really doesn’t hold back on either. However, the truly eye-opening nature of this brilliant series means I’d put it at the top of my must-watch list for anyone.