Those of us starved for new, gay, HIV content to watch might find a gem in the British series It’s a Sin, now streaming on HBO Max. With a title taken from the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 hit song, the five-part drama takes place in 1980s gay London, right at the dawn of the AIDS crisis. The production is a huge hit in the UK, and it’s the first mainstream show in Britain featuring an HIV storyline. HBO Max hopes to have the same success here across the pond.
The show, created by Russell T. Davies of Queer as Folk fame, concerns three gay, young cuties—Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells)—and their gal pal Jill (Lydia West) as they navigate youth, sex, friendship, family, and homophobia. The production spans the decade, and as the friendships bond and the characters grow, a mysterious virus, targeting homosexual men and spread through sexual encounters, creeps into their lives and shatters their world. The series also features sparkling turns by Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, rounding out the openly gay cast (gay actors playing gay characters? Downright Un-American).
I was fortunate to get a sneak peek at the series. Before I watched the show, I went online to check out the promotion, to see what all the hype was about. From the trailer and social media, it all looks to be a fabulous skip through the Me-First decade in blighty ol’ England. Davis said in interviews that part of his impetus for creating It’s a Sin was a desire to create a joyous show. There’s even fabulous merch available, including a T-shirt that says “La.”—the cheeky greeting that the motley family of friends greets each other with. I was already thinking of purchasing one, especially since a percentage of the proceeds benefit the HIV charity, Terrence Higgins Trust.
I tucked in to watch the series, expecting a happy little romp, mixed with some activism and awareness. Like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but with AIDS thrown in.
It’s a Sin is an emotional chronicle of these friends’ lives through the decade as they navigate tricks, work, and a homophobic society while an emerging pandemic begins to rage. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that in this tale of 1980s AIDS, some characters get sick, and some die. The series shows in all-too-terrible detail the horrors that took place at that time—and the opportunistic infections that were rampantly common in the early days of the crisis, from thrush and Kaposi sarcoma lesions to pneumocystis pneumonia and HIV encephalopathy, which infects the brain and causes dementia. Add to that the scenes of confused and often uncharitable medical professionals and family ostracizing the infected, leaving them isolated, frightened, and utterly alone as they await the inevitable.
There’s also a fair amount of shame and blame when it comes to the virus. I guess in a program called It’s a Sin, some moralizing and finger-pointing should be expected. The character Ritchie laments in a poignant monologue how many men he had sex with, who may have infected him, and, startlingly, whom he may have infected. I recognized myself, and feelings I had at the time of my own diagnosis, when I watched that. I threw a cookie at the television, wishing he (and I) were more loving to himself—and more spurred into immediate anger and activism instead of self-pity.
That’s not to say that It’s a Sin is all doom and gloom. There are scenes of humor, parties, the flaunting of youth, unabashed sex scenes (although, sadly, not enough nudity for my tastes). The most satisfying scenes for me were the ones where the friends were together, celebrating each other’s triumphs and holding each other in darker times. The kind of love that occurs when you realize that your friends are the family you always wished you had, the family you never knew you needed. This group of friends in It’s a Sin is certainly that created family, and it’s genuinely beautiful.
It’s a Sin is a history lesson, and that’s perfectly fine. We’ve had better ones in our American media catalogue: from the amazing documentary How to Survive a Plague to fictional works like Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and even Rent, so I’m not sure how much It’s a Sin is needed. Perhaps it will serve to educate those too young to have been around to see what the AIDS crisis was really like, to honor the lives of all those we lost to HIV/AIDS, and to brighten the shadows of memory for those of us who were there. What I really hope is that the show opens up conversations about HIV, the community’s past, and how far we’ve come. Without a modern context, it’s just a sad, mediocre tale of a tragic time. If all anyone knows about HIV is the horribleness of the crisis of the ’80s and ’90s, then the shame and stigma around HIV will never go away. That would really be a sin.