It’s a Sin will wreck you. The landmark new series from Russel T. Davies spans five episodes and 10 years—from 1981 to 1991—as it follows the lives, the loves, and ultimately the losses of a group of gay friends forced to confront the AIDS pandemic head on.
Starring Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander and featuring such gay icons as Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, this new drama is one of the most important pieces of television of the past decade. It premiered last month on Channel 4 in the UK, and now arrives in the US via HBO Max on Feb. 18. Beautifully humanizing this little-understood period in our history, It’s a Sin pulls no punches in portraying the sheer cruelty of both this disease and British society at the time.
Editor’s note: The following discussion directly addresses some plot points and complete story arcs of characters in the series, so be prepared for some spoilers.
Cocksure Ritchie (Alexander) is our entry into this world of thumping dance beats and neon colors. Moving to London in September of 1981, when the show begins, Ritchie is a plucky teenager from the bucolic Isle of Wight. Despite some early stumbles—including an awkward and accidentally racist conversation with hunky Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) following a particularly sexy tryst—he strikes up a friendship with the more level-headed Jill (played beautifully by breakout star Lydia West), the sweetly shy Colin (Callum Scott Howells), and the out-and-proud Roscoe (Omari Douglas). Together, they form a chosen family, drinking and dancing and shagging their way across London like so many bright-eyed youths before and since.
Funny, warm, and engaging, these are likable characters. Even Ritchie, ostensibly the lead character, whose smug attitude and internalized homophobia is grating throughout the series, comes across as the life of the party, due in no small part to Alexander’s exuberant charm. The feeling of being young and finally free to be yourself is something so familiar to me as a gay man, but that I think anyone who has ever just wanted permission to exhale and be themselves can relate to. In a fairer world, here is where It’s a Sin would continue on as a sort of 1980s Queer as Folk (another Davies series).
As the title might betray, though, It’s a Sin does not take place in a fairer world. In 1982, Terrence Higgins became the first British man known to have died from what was then termed GRID: Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Far from taking place against this backdrop, the show swiftly and devastatingly dives headfirst into the pain and trauma inflicted upon a generation of gay men—those who tragically died from AIDS, and those who survived and mourned—by both the virus and the society that failed to protect them from it.
At first, the disease was little understood, even among the gay community. In the first episode, Ritchie insists if there really was a “gay flu” killing people in San Francisco, it would be all over the news. Later, in the second episode—set in 1983, the year after Terrence Higgins died—Ritchie is offended when a man he hooks up with back home on the Isle of Wight is hesitant to sleep with someone from London. “Oh my God don’t be stupid,” he exclaims, “it’s Americans you don’t sleep with, not Londoners. Americans,” expressing the fairly common belief that the disease was not a problem in the UK.
Ritchie’s reluctance to accept the gravity of the situation is a running theme throughout the series. Like many gay men of the era, he suspected GRID—renamed AIDS when it was realized straight people could contract it as well—was nothing more than government propaganda to further stigmatize the gay community. “They wanna scare us and stop us having sex and make us really boring,” he says in an epic tirade in which he lists all the ways AIDS was supposedly spread, from frictions to poppers to (correctly) semen. “I don’t believe it,” he defiantly concludes.
That may seem crazy to us in 2021 (or maybe not, considering our own pandemic deniers) yet it wasn’t an unreasonable assumption in 1983. Though remembered mostly for her economic reforms, Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister for the entirety of the 1980s, was also something of a moral crusader. In a 1987 speech to the Conservative Party conference, Thatcher lamented that “children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”
This kind of rhetoric paled in comparison comments made by James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, who in 1986 said homosexuals are “swimming around in a human cesspit of their own making” and wondered “why do these people freely engage in sodomy and other obnoxious practices, knowing the dangers involved?”
The danger, of course, was AIDS—something It’s a Sin lands like a punch in the gut in episode three. In contrast to brash, randy Ritchie, chaste Colin is a picture of propriety. Up until this episode, Davies had painstakingly contrasted Colin with the more hedonistic lifestyles of his friends. “Organized. Sweet. Soft-spoken. Welsh,” I tweeted while watching the series, “Colin is basically my dream man.” In episode one, he is seen caring for an older friend—played by Neil Patrick Harris—who is suffering from AIDS (though no one knew that at the time.)
In the first episode of the series, Colin briefly shows a sexual interest in the son of his landlord. Yet after that, we never see him have sex or even show the slightest bit of carnal interest. Viewers—like his friends—are led to believe sweet Colin is as chaste as a nun. So understandably, his diagnosis takes both viewers and his friends by complete surprise.
“Colin can’t have AIDS, he’s never had it off with anyone,” Ritchie insists. The randomness of the disease, the fact that some got it, some didn’t, both terrified and confounded people at the time. “I’ve had everyone, that’s not fair!” Roscoe exclaims in disbelief upon finding out he is HIV negative.
Colin’s friends never quite figure out how he caught it. Viewers do, however, find out through devastating flashbacks of Colin’s tryst with his landlady’s son, who calls him homophobic slurs as he roughly penetrates him—the scenes are cut against Colin taking his last breaths as the virus claims his life. It is the most gripping and heartbreakingly tragic scene in the entire series, and one of the most devastating moments I have ever seen on television.
Colin’s death serves as a wakeup call for his friends, bringing the virus right into their homes. For Ritchie, it makes him double down on his denial and internalized homophobia, ignoring his test results and pretending that the virus simply doesn’t exist. Yet for Jill, it’s a call to arms. Watching her work at an AIDS helpline, visit AIDS patients in the hospital when so few would dare go near them, and stage die-ins in the streets of central London is a testament to all the women, particularly lesbians, who took up the yolk of caring for and advocating on behalf of the gay men who were dying around them.
In the end, one of those men is Ritchie himself. Finally unable to run from the virus any longer, Ritchie is taken home to die by his parents, who refuse to let his friends see him. In a particularly moving monologue, Jill makes clear to Ritchie’s mum what her ignorance and prejudice did to her son. “That’s what shame does,” she says. “It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it.”
Of course, none of them did. Ignorance and fear conspired against a generation of gay men, many of whom did not survive it. Ritchie’s death is every bit as heartbreaking as Colin’s death because neither should have died, a point Davies makes with remarkable and devastating precision. The most likable and the most unlikable characters meet the same fate because this virus was—is—indiscriminate. The brilliance of It’s a Sin is the tragedy of history.