HBO’s “It’s A Sin” Review
Ever since getting into the Broadway musical “Falsettos,” I have been on the prowl for more media about the AIDS epidemic. To be more specific, I have been searching for honest chronicles of the AIDS epidemic, content with a lot of heart and research. With this said, the Broadway show “Rent” was not making the list anytime soon. After some deep diving, I discovered a British miniseries: “It’s A Sin.” Interesting title, interesting plotline; I knew I had to check it out.
“It’s A Sin” tells an honest story about the AIDS epidemic in London. This interested me because it is rare for narratives set during the epidemic to take place outside of the United States. Typically, these stories are set in New York City, but the decision to show the epidemic unfolding in London did an excellent job depicting the scope of AIDS in the 1980s. “It’s A Sin” chronicles the development of the virus and, subsequently, AIDS treatment, between 1981 and 1991. The story follows a racially diverse group of friends, which consists of four gay men and one straight woman.
The protagonist is Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), a young man who leaves home for the first time to attend university in London. Coming from a conservative white family, Ritchie is excited to embark on a sexual journey in the city. He is not yet out to his family, but lives an openly gay and sexually liberating lifestyle in London. Jill Baxter (Lydia West), his best friend, is there for him through everything. Jill is a biracial woman from an incredibly progressive family; at one point, we even see her parents join her at a protest. She does everything she can to educate herself on AIDS and becomes an activist, fighting for the rights of men with AIDS. Jill is the series’ deuteragonist.
Jill and Ritchie move into an apartment together along with their three friends Ash, Roscoe, and Colin. Ash Mukherjee (Nathaniel Curtis) is a British-Indian man whom Ritchie has an on-and-off sexual relationship with throughout the years. Roscoe Babatunde (Omari Douglas) is a flamboyant young man from a conservative Nigerian family. He runs away from his family to avoid being sent to Nigeria where his life would be jeopardized due to his being gay. Roscoe is always seen in makeup and loud clothing and tends to be the source of much of the series’ comedy. Finally, there is Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a timid boy next door type from Wales. He moves to London to apprentice at a prestigious tailoring establishment. He is sexually harrassed by his older male boss and eventually befriends his gay coworker who is portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris. Harris’ character gives Colin the first glimpse of AIDS.
In just five episodes, these young characters grow from teenagers to adults not only in body, but in mind. The character development that is managed in such a short span is impressive and works wonders in emotionally connecting audiences with the characters. While the actions of the characters are very much propelled by the looming AIDS epidemic (you might consider the epidemic the antagonist), the series is very character-driven. Much of the conflict comes from the decisions that the characters make and the internal battles that they fight. There is a lot of tension between the main characters and their families. The tensions between these families are portrayed realistically and create such a multi-layered narrative about being a gay man touched by AIDS.
Not all of the characters contract AIDS. Furthermore, “It’s A Sin” flips common tropes for gay characters in their axes. For instance, it is common for most gay men in film and TV to be depicted as promiscuous. In “It’s A Sin,” we see two characters act this way (Ritchie and Roscoe), one of whom abandons his promiscuity to settle down. In this same vein, it is typical for the most promiscuous character to succumb to death first. This is far from the case in “It’s A Sin.”
Another refreshing narrative choice that this series makes is not to make a savior or spectacle of its token straight girl. Jill does not exist to “save” her gay friends. She is supportive, rather. She worries, as any friend would, and walks alongside her friends as AIDS ravages their community. Jill is also never given a love interest or a plotline that is separate from that of her friends. This is so important, because there is no attempt at catering to the needs of a straight audience. Rather, Jill’s romantic and sexual life are not brought to the forefront to appease straight viewers. It is also cool to see a female character whose sexual behavior is not central to her character.
One thing to know about “It’s A Sin” is that you will cry. A lot. The first episode alone will tug at your heartstrings. While most of your tears are likely to be sad, there will undoubtedly be some tears of joy and laughter. The dispersal of humor throughout the series is excellently employed, and does a sufficient job of capturing the mood of the 1980s as a fun yet uncertain era. Uncertainty is a major theme throughout the series, as one might expect. It is compelling to watch the characters as they live through the time when AIDS was still dubbed “the gay cancer” to a point in time where treatment available and those with AIDS could survive longer. Throughout the series, each character has their uncertainties not only about the ongoing epidemic and its implications, but about their own identities.
“It’s A Sin” manages to chronicle a dark point in history honestly, while still creating realistic characters. Never once did I feel like the characters were stock characters or stereotypes. As a huge LGBTQ+ ally and someone who is interested in AIDS through a sociological lens, this show was a powerful narrative. I saw much of myself in Jill and was very much able to see my friends in Ash, Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin. It is rare to come across a piece fo LGBTQ+ television that is so empowering; even in the face of AIDS, none of the characters were victimized. Truthfully, I could write an entire book about “It’s A Sin.” However, I will wrap up by saying that this is by far the best series I have ever seen. It is honest, empowering, witty, and wise in its execution.