Whisperings of a mysterious new illness arrive. People are dying, but as it is happening to other people in other countries, the seriousness of it really hasn’t hit home yet. Suddenly people you know are dying in isolation wards, no one knows for sure how it is spread, and people refuse to put on something that might just save their life and instead spread conspiracy theories that the virus isn’t real.
While it sounds like it could be a documentary about the Covid-19 pandemic response, in reality it is It’s a Sin, the new series from Russell T. Davies, producer of other shows like the UK version of Queer As Folk, Years and Years and the revival of Dr. Who. This new series, which boasts 8.8 stars on IMDb, details the lives of a group of friends in London during the beginning of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.
The five-part miniseries begins in 1981, with Ritchie’s (the band Years & Years front man Olly Alexander) arrival on the “mainland” from Isle of Wight, eager to explore his sexuality. He meets Jill Baxter (Years and Years actress Lydia West) who introduces him to the guy he was admiring from afar, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Welsh lad Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is also a new arrival, in town working at a posh men’s shop with a lustful owner. Roscoe’s (Omari Douglas) family is wanting to send him back to Nigeria where he faces imprisonment or worse for the crime of being gay, and he puts on a fabulous outfit and make up to escape into the London night.
The motley crew take advantage of the London nightlife, and the local bar owner doesn’t want any of the propaganda about that new cancer affecting gay men in the States. As long as they don’t “yank with any yanks,” they’ll be all right, or so they think.
First, Colin’s co-worker Henry (Neil Patrick Harris) gets sick and is isolated in a hospital. (Harris was cast as part of an agreement that HBO would air it if they had an American actor, according to IMDb’s trivia section for the show.) Then another friend gets sick. It isn’t just an American problem as they had previously thought. It takes the disease striking closer to home to open their eyes.
It’s a Sin, named for the Pet Shop Boys song, shows just what it was like to be young and coming out in the 1980s. It shows the fear of not only getting the disease, but the fear and anxiety of not understanding the disease. Even before the internet, misinformation and rumors abounded, leading people down the wrong track. It takes us back to a time when homosexuality was feared by the general public and the LGBTQ+ community experienced hardly any acceptance whatsoever. Although Colin’s boss desires and sexually harasses him, he suddenly lets Colin go from his job without cause after the boss notices all the AIDS information Colin had picked up on a business trip to New York. The television says only gay men catch the disease, and people wonder if it is in saliva. Jill scrubs herself after taking care of a sick friend. Ritchie has to deal with his mother’s homophobia and denial of his true self. It is a grim reminder of those early days of “the gay plague.”
The show’s beautiful, melancholy tone is enhanced by a soundtrack of 80s gay anthems. Each scene carries an impeccable mise-en-scene that gives a sensation of life across the pond 40 years ago when AIDS and HIV were still in their nascent phase.
Davies stated in an article with Entertainment Weekly that he was inspired to create the series because the United States has produced tons of stories depicting their struggle with AIDS, such as Rent and Angels in America—both amazing productions in their own right—he hadn’t “seen it from a street level” nor “seen it set within Britain.” The story takes place over a decade which reflects the slow-acting nature of the disease.
The show was originally titled Boys but changed its name to avoid confusion with Amazon Prime’s The Boys debut on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 in January and on HBO Max in the United States in February and is capturing a lot of attention and viewers, having broken the streaming record for Channel 4’s streaming service All 4 with 6.5 million views.
While it might be a depressing topic to deal with during quarantine—I remember the bleak feeling I had a year ago while watching Davies’ prior production Years and Years which dealt with a dark version of the 2020s that imagined all kinds of catastrophic events that did not include a pandemic—the series is definitely worth watching, not only because it is a brilliant production but also because those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.
In a world where medicine has made HIV undetectable, which means non-transmissible, and many take PREP to avoid the virus, it is important to understand the world our community faced not too long ago so we can understand where we came from and what freedoms we have today that our older LGBTQ family didn’t have forty years ago.