‘It’s A Sin’ Is The First Must-Watch Show Of 2021

'It's A Sin' creates something truly special -- a sexy, lively and nuanced celebration of the queer men we lost and the allies who fought to help them, underscored by a quiet fury.

It's A Sin

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In a mid-season montage, It’s A Sin‘s lead character Ritchie starts taking the threat of AIDS seriously. With little information out there in the mid-’80s, he turns to quack preventatives: he downs egg yolks, takes a bunch of vitamins, and meets a bunch of nervous men who agree, after having heard a rumour, to take sips of battery acid.

It’s A Sin is, as you can imagine, a hard watch. The five-part AIDS epidemic miniseries, created by Russell T. Davies (Years & Years, Doctor Who, Queer As Folk) is the antithesis of the ‘ambient TV’ we’ve latched onto this past year.

Taking the vital if not familiar beats of the ‘AIDS drama’, It’s A Sin instead creates something truly special, a sexy, lively and nuanced celebration of the queer men we lost and the allies who fought to help them, underscored by a quiet fury.

Despite covering ten years in five episodes, It’s A Sin lets each moment and beat of the AIDS epidemic breathe. We know how this story ends, but the success of the series is that the audience feels everything its characters do — a confusing, terrible mix of absolution and shame, grief and growth, fear and fun. So much fun.

Sex! Sex! Sex!

With landmark show Queer As Folk, Russell T. Davies bypassed depicting HIV and AIDS in order to show that queer men are more than the disease. Given that a majority of mainstream LGBT+ stories in the ’90-’00s ended in trauma, it was an understandable choice — as was the criticism.

Two decades later, the burden of queer representation is slighter, and Davies can focus on hyper-specifics. We meet It’s A Sin’s main characters at age 18, as they first arrive into themselves and the queer scene of early ’80s London.

Ritchie (Olly Alexander, the frontman of band Years & Years) leaves his stagnant, repressing family home on the Isle Of Wight to attend university, where he soon transfers from law to acting after meeting Jill (Lydia West), who spies him eyeing off classmate Ash (Nathaniel Curtis).

The three of them soon meet Roscoe (Omari Douglas), a flamboyant bartender who flees his Nigerian immigrant family and is driven by a desire for wealth and fame, and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a quiet Welsh boy out of his depths in the city’s queer scene. It’s difficult to pick a stand-out performance, as each actor treats their characters with respect for their nuances and contradictions: you will recognise portions of them within yourself and your friends.

The transformation is most clear with Ritchie. At first, he’s unconfident, shy, and lost when it comes to sex, and it’s a joy to see him shift into a loud (if not arrogant), charming man who makes a network of friends through hookups. We see Ritchie indulge in topping, bottoming, threesomes, rimming and more, without time for explaining the ins and outs to audiences: the ease and versatility, as he explores pleasure and connection as it comes with each person, whatever the positions that chemistry calls for.

Sex in It’s A Sin is both hedonistic and self-fulfilling. With each fuck, Ritchie becomes more and more confident within himself and his new world. Many relationships are ambiguous, too, rarely defined for the audience. After a montage of sexual encounters, we see Ritchie walk through a bar, nodding to his past-hookups and new friends — it isn’t played for laughs, but to show how this community is brought together and strengthened, not diluted, through casual sex. The freedoms — to wear bad drag, to be loud, to fuck men, to become an actor — can’t be separated from each other.

‘Of Course I Don’t Own A Bloody Parrot’

AIDS first arrives into their lives through Colin’s friendship with older co-worker Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), who becomes sick shortly alongside his long-term partner.

It is 1981, and doctors believe it’s a form of a virus usually found in parrots. His partner is taken away by his mother, doomed to die in his family home; Henry is quarantined in an empty hospital room, left to die hidden from the world. It is an intergenerational friendship that is cut off far too soon, a reminder of how much knowledge and guidance queer people have lost.

As more men get sick, we see many taken back in by their families, forced to live their last days in repressive environments. Families burn their possessions and refuse to let friends or lovers say goodbye, and we see the shame resurface in the men’s last days. For some, the shame arrives earlier, as they hide their illness from their friends and themselves.

We see men dying alone in hospitals. Sometimes, it’s unclear whether they were abandoned, are closeted and so have cut themselves off, or that they are the last one standing.

Each death scars the community in odd, clashing ways. Jill researches rumours of a virus in the US killing gay men; Ritchie calls bullshit; others begin to protest or retreat into the shadows; some are cautious, except when they’re not. Things expand out, and AIDS takes over the bright lives they have fought to live — they are constantly worried they will die, while witnessing their friends, old flings and enemies pass on. Still, they must continue to live, for both themselves and everyone who can’t.

What Does It Mean In 2021?

Of the characters, Jill is the audience’s conduit: like us, she looks on from a distance. Jill’s suffering — the burden she has to be resilient for her friends — is one of the most touching parts of It’s A Sin, recalling Rebecca Makkai’s excellent novel The Great Believers, which shows the intense, ongoing trauma of keeping alive the memories of a generation lost.

Jill, who is loosely based off one of Davies’ friends, also reminds me of a recent tweet by novelist Alexander Chee, “the gentlest people I know are full of rage and grief”. Jill’s pain doesn’t curdle her, but makes her kinder, more selfless — the sacrifice is clear, and, with few people around to say thank you, it goes unthanked. Jill never centres her own hurt, but It’s A Sin does: the show’s a tribute to those who both fought to make the public care about AIDS and lessen suffering in whatever small ways they could.

It’s tempting to contextualise the show, or analyse why It’s A Sin is perfect for this specific moment. The analogies between the global mishandling of AIDS and COVID-19 are immediate, as are the tendencies to shame and police individuals for their actions rather than the governments and private bodies failing to lead.

The calls for greater kindness and empathy are all there too, especially at a time when trans people are demonised by the media and failed by our medical system. But It’s A Sin isn’t worth watching just for its teachable moments.

It wants you to know that the men who died of AIDS in the ’80s were like you — complicated, silly, funny, charming, annoying, eager to love. There were millions of them: Instagram account @TheAidsMemorial documents their lives, one by one. And yes, there are lessons in their lives and their deaths, but they were people first.

It’s A Sin is available to stream on Stan.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and a freelancer who has written for The Guardian, The Big Issue and more. He’s on Twitter as @jrdjms.