TV Review: Russell T. Davies’ 80s Aids serial ‘It’s a Sin’ is a pleasure, but not a guilty one
Ah, It’s a Sin. A heady tribute as much as it is a wistful tragedy. Both a celebration of everything to come and a eulogy for those who aren’t here to join us. There are abundant examples of Aids narratives centred on the US epidemic, of course, from the monolithic polemics of The Normal Heart and Angels of America to the subdued theatre of Yen Tan’s 1985, or Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances – but Britain, where Freddie Mercury died, where Princess Diana held the hands of dying Aids patients? Not much, and nothing so exhaustive as Russell T. Davies’ new series. We should be glad to have it.
It’s the early eighties, and a handful of kids run off to London with pockets full of dreams. Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a closeted gay actor who dreams of opulence like the queens of Paris is Burning, escapes his small town on the Isle of Wight. Joining him are cute Welshman Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who we first see fumbling his way into a London bedsit, blushing at a boy in a football shirt down the hall, and Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who boasts the most thunderous introduction of the lot, storming out of his family home in defiant drag – much to the delight of his cackling aunties.
A fortunate turn of events – including lots of delightfully explicit gay sex, and another rimming scene for the history books – sees the three leads united under the roof of the “Pink Palace,” a slum apartment with immensely cheap rent, along with Jill (Lydia West) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Their first forays into the big, new world of London brim with excitement, soundtracked by banger-after-contemporaneous banger. Renting an apartment liable to fall apart at a moment’s notice is a precarious affair at the best of times, but you do get the benefit of being able to host an endless conveyor belt of parties – and that, they do. Did I mention they fuck a lot? But tragedy awaits: young men start dying, panic sets in, and rumours of a gay-killing virus begin to circulate.
Good drama is always undergirded by great performances, and It’s a Sin is no exception, although you might lament the ensemble’s disproportionate screen time, a symptom of the series’ compact length. Omari Douglas steals the show: he embodies Roscoe with all of the sassy righteousness of a snap! queen, bringing charisma and energy in abundance. In one scene, for example, he takes down Thatcher’s anti-queer education policy, Section 28, in a biting monologue. You might be put off by how out-of-time it feels, but my oh my, does Douglas eat it up. These little anachronistic fantasies, where the sins of the past rub shoulder-to-shoulder with the progressive attitudes of the present, are dotted throughout, serving as interesting formal flips.
As is Davies’ style, the show is a conventional melodrama through-and-through. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does narrow the spectrum of emotions the ensemble might be expected to perform. Nonetheless, Alexander does great work in the later episodes, where demanded by the text, to embody Ritchie with a quiet, subdued tension; a scene in the back of an ambulance just after a violent demonstration is a great showcase for his talents, as is the first half of the finale. Lydia West might be argued to be the concrete that keeps the show together, and not just because Jill is the functional matriarch of the ensemble’s found family – central to everything, Jill is the plot’s metronome. She’s also central to the series’ greatest scene, in which she visits a lonely stranger on his deathbed. It’s a well-used trope of Aids fiction albeit one utilised, here, to great dramatic effect.
Davies composes mood and tone like few others working in television drama right now. It’s a Sin is packed with tonal juxtapositions: the highest highs are ripped apart by the lowest lows. Dramatic irony is played like a fiddle. The show dances with audience expectations, teasing the slow emergence of Aids, an indiscriminate terror, like a sniper picking off victims at random. Everyone is at risk. Davies has always loved a gut-punch: think of Lance’s murder in Cucumber, in which a hot blowjob is followed by brutal skull-pummelling, jam-red blood pouring out of the side of his head. It’s a Sin has at least one per episode. Bring tissues.
Not only is It’s a Sin an important historical document, it’s an important historical document done well, though one might lament that the series is so compact. Ash is lost to the drama towards the end, becoming less a character and more a device to drive the narrative in a particular direction. The contributions of many communities – not least the lesbians and women who nursed Aids victims on their deathbeds – are regrettably missed. It’s ten years of fictionalised history packed down into five, fifty minute parts, and it could easily be double, or even triple, that. Nonetheless, this is a riveting contribution to the canon of Aids fiction, elevated by a deft ensemble.
It’s a Sin is currently airing on Channel 4 in the UK and begins airing in the US on HBO Max February 18.
Image courtesy of Red Production Company