‘It’s a Sin’ snatches ephemeral joy from the jaws of death

A Gen-Z skeptic reviews Russell T. Davies’ paean to ’80s hedonism and community

I didn’t want to watch It’s a Sin,  the five-part miniseries—already a smash hit in the United Kingdom—premiering in North America this week. Created and written by Russell T. Davies, responsible for such iconic shows as Queer as Folk and the 2005 revival of Doctor Who, It’s a Sin follows a tight-knit group of British gays thriving—and, inevitably, dying—at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in early 1980s London. 

As a gay man, I know how important it is to engage with tragic stories on the AIDS crisis, on the generation of elders we lost, on the hate and government inaction that killed them. But that doesn’t mean it’s fun. It’s horribly painful and traumatic to be exposed again and again to the agonizing deaths of people like me whose lives were cut dreadfully short just as they were starting to enjoy the freedoms they rightly deserved. It’s necessary that these events be remembered and memorialized, and the thousands who died deserve to have their stories told. But the trauma of what our community lost during the AIDS crisis lingers, as does the anti-gay stigma that era produced—even though an HIV diagnosis is no longer considered a death sentence. 

Some might argue that the story of the people who died of AIDS in the ’80s deserve to be commemorated over and over again; that it’s a lush story that’s multifaceted; that the story can still be told in new, innovative ways.

But I’ve read The Inheritance and Push. I’ve seen Angels in America and Dallas Buyers Club and Philadelphia and Falsettos and Rent and Bohemian Rhapsody and Precious. And I know all about Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnarowicz and Klaus Nomi and Eazy-E. I just spent a few weeks immersing myself in research about the 1981 Toronto bathhouse raids. I’ve done my homework, all in an effort to try to educate myself about my cultural history so I can be better armed against the people who still want to oppress my community. So forgive me if I was skeptical of the raves for It’s a Sin: The five-star Guardian review that called it “a poignant masterpiece,” its record-breaking U.K. ratings, its perfect 100 percent rating on critical aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. “There’s no way it’s that good,” I thought to myself. “The story’s been done a thousand times. What could this possibly bring to the table?”

 

I was wrong. 

It’s a Sin is an absolute triumph from start to finish, featuring an ensemble cast with exceptional chemistry, eye-popping cinematography (by David Katznelson), a tour-de-force plot and an ’80s pop soundtrack worthy of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s main stage. Every second of its five episodes is relentlessly, jubilantly queer. I stormed through the series, transfixed by its riotous spirit and addictive storyline. And in the end, I did feel that this AIDS story was different, that it possessed some ephemeral quality that transcended the typical cliché of the AIDS subgenre. 

“Every second of its five episodes is relentlessly, jubilantly queer.”

It’s a Sin is a magnificently told story about chosen family; AIDS is merely a plot device, a person versus nature conflict that forces our heroes to learn to cherish what they have. And in many ways, I think that is what the show is trying to accomplish. Perhaps the best proof of this is in its first episode, where we’re introduced to Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, the frontman of British electro pop group Years & Years), a freshly-out aspiring actor hell-bent on satisfying his most decadent sexual fantasies. He meets Jill Baxter (Lydia West), his bubbly, fun-loving wingwoman, and the two become fast friends as only gay men and straight women can. (The character of Jill Baxter is based on the real life story of Jill Nader who, now an actress, is cast as Baxter’s mother.)

Ritchie and Jill meet some new friends—including femme free spirit Roscoe (Omari Douglas), bashful and newly-out Colin (Callum Scott Howells) and brainy Ash (Nathaniel Curtis)—and they all move into a flat together, affectionately dubbed the “Pink Palace.” In this episode, the gang we come to love and mourn throughout the series coalesces, and we get to see them indulge in sex and booze and drag in a deeply satisfactory and entertaining way. It captures the delicious hedonism of pre-AIDS gay culture in ways I’ve never seen, and it’s all filtered through the brilliant performances of its excellent ensemble cast. 

Still, I’d be hard-pressed to call It’s A Sin a joy to watch. Although there are many moments of levity, they really only exist to enhance the devastation you feel when they inevitably sour into tragedy. And I mean that as a compliment—details that are initially presented as symbols of liberty and fun are masterfully twisted into morose symbols of the gang’s misfortune. For example, Ritchie gets into drag at a big house party in the premiere. As “Rachel,” he amps the crowd up for a big performance, boasting that he’s going to sing a song for them. Itching with excitement, the crowd waits in suspense, silent as Ritchie takes his time, drawing a big breath, and uttering, in the highest of keys and with the briefest of staccatos, a singular “La!” The performance ends there, and the crowd goes wild.

“La!” becomes an inside joke between the main gang that you, as a viewer, are in on. They all say “La!” as an aloha of sorts—a catch-all greeting and goodbye that only those in The Gang will get. At first, it’s joyful: A tiny expression of queer solidarity, a blazing, gorgeous recollection of a time when everyone was happy. But as AIDS begins to rear its head in the lives of our protagonists, the “Las” wilt into timid greetings and, by the end of the series, disappear altogether. It’s a small detail, but it breathes life into the characters in ways that major plot events don’t. We are defined by more than just our major tragedies and successes; we’re also made up of our miniscule, thoughtless, random moments, and Sin beautifully captures that reality over and over again. 

In a mere five episodes, the show does what every story dreams of doing: It captures the complexity of the human spirit, and does so with wit, charisma, cheek and depth. It might not transcend the tried-and-true AIDS subgenre it’s clearly indebted to, but it epitomizes all the best bits of it, making it a worthy successor to Angels in America and The Inheritance and all the other great art about the era. It’s so good it can make a fan out of the worst cynic—take it from me.

It’s a Sin streams on HBO Max in the U.S. and Amazon Prime in Canada.

Correction: February 19, 2021 1:00 pmThe name of actress Lydia West was noted incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.

KC Hoard is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Globe and MailMaclean'sBroadview and the National Post. He was named Canada's Biggest Carly Rae Jepsen Stan by CBC Arts in 2019 (and hasn't shut up about it since).

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