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'It's a Sin' Review: Russell T. Davies's new AIDS drama is a must-watch

An exceptional ensemble capture the humanity, horror, and even humor of this defining period.

Olly Alexander in It's A Sin
(Image: © Channel 4)

Our Verdict

Shame and regret go hand-in-hand, but the exhilaration felt by each of these characters is not forgotten and Davies triumphs in this television masterpiece by emphasizing the celebrations before (and after) the curtain comes down.

For

  • ❤️A deeply personal story that captures the joy as well as the tragedy of this period.
  • 💙Strong performances from a cast featuring several newcomers.
  • 💚Nuanced depictions of fraught family relationships.
  • 💜A soundtrack with zero skips.

Against

  • 💛The lack of trans representation.

In 1999, Queer as Folk became the first mainstream gay drama to air in the UK (a year later a US adaptation debuted on Showtime). Russell T. Davies’s pioneering series was met with moral outrage for its radical portrayal of LGBTQ lives, but there was also concern from gay critics about the lack of AIDS awareness and an absent safe sex message. “Because by that stage, in 1999, I refused to let our lives be defined by disease. So I excluded it on purpose,” Davies explained in a recent Guardian interview discussing his past work and the road to It's a Sin. Now the screenwriter is confronting this period of his life head-on with a blistering five-part drama that portrays the partying, fear, shame, and exuberance of the '80s. An era stained by government inaction and deep-rooted prejudice against the gay community that led to deaths and increased stigma.  

Beginning in 1981, Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) leaves the Isle of Wight to pursue his dream of becoming an actor in London. Fame isn’t the only thing he seeks and he grabs this opportunity to shed the person he was pretending to be in the emotionally stilted (and closeted) home. College lets him embrace this journey of self-discovery and through myriad parties and gay pub hangouts, Ritchie’s circle of friends widens. Cheap rent in a shared apartment — that becomes known as the Pink Palace — is a safe haven for Roscoe (Omari Douglas) who fled his family after they found out he was gay because otherwise he would get sent to Nigeria. Making up the other roommates are shy Colin (Callum Scott Howles), potential love interest Ash (Nathanial Curtis), and the woman who made the Pink Palace dream happen, Jill (Lydia West). The latter is based on Davies’s friend Jill and the real version plays Jill’s mother — indicating just how personal this story is.

Dread bubbles under the surface as the rumors and outlandish theories create a low hum in the background and it is impossible to ignore the specter on the horizon. The audience is in a position of privilege because we know this disease will not stay confined to the shores of the United States. It is coming and when it hits, it will be devastating. What Davies manages to do in the first two episodes is balance the approaching Grim Reaper with beautiful freeing moments between friends. They are having the time of their life and while we know this party will come to a sobering end, it is wonderful to see Ritchie live the life he dreamed of, Colin shedding some inhibitions, and Roscoe wearing and hooking up with who he wants without fear of being sent home to his death. 

It’s A Sin is undoubtedly about the AIDS epidemic and was filmed before productions shut down in March last year due to COVID-19, but there is an eerie familiarity about ignored warnings, a lack of information, rumors of cures (including some very unpleasant suggestions), conspiracy theories, and a government floundering with its response. Partly, what this suggests is history is cyclical, but the cruelty of how the gay community was treated in the early days of the AIDS crisis cannot be ignored (or forgotten). 

The looming shadow grows but this group of friends has other concerns to contend with before death crashes the party, including Ritchie's quest for acting fame. Fans of Doctor Who will be pleased to see Davies’ sci-fi work is referenced, but it is a headlight lit dance number that leaves an indelible image. There are some familiar faces among the cast — including Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry, and Neil Patrick Harris —  but the five friends are mostly made up of newcomers. West who plays Jill starred in Davies’s terrifying apocalyptic series Years & Years and by pure coincidence, Olly Alexander is the lead singer of synth-pop trio Years & Years. For Douglas, Curtis, and Howells this is their first major TV role; each nails the exuberant and gut-punch scenes. 

It is hard to single out one performer, but West’s Jill is the emotional heartbeat of not only the Pink Palace but the entire mini-series. There is a particularly potent scene in the final episode between Jill and another character that is a battle cry in the face of all the lives snuffed out because of homophobic attitudes. Coming out experiences are not a one size fits all situation and it is impressive how Davies ensures there is nuance in the depiction of family members who struggle with the reality of their children’s lives. He doesn’t let them off the hook either, but there is no mustache-twirling villain in this story. 

Stephen Fry and Omari Douglas in It's A Sin

(Image credit: Channel 4)

The years roll by with each episode and as personal aspects get worse, the shift in treatment from medical staff is noticeable — in 2021, AIDS is no longer a death sentence, even if some of the stigmas remain. Artifacts of the period that feature include the first terrifying government PSA (voiced by John Hurt) are a stark reminder of the fear-mongering campaign. Unlike The Crown, Margaret Thatcher’s terrible record on this matter is put under the spotlight and Princess Diana’s handshake warrants a mention. After watching It’s A Sin, Peter Morgan skipping over the AIDS crisis in the UK (the Princess Diana hospital visit occurs in New York City) feels even more egregious than it already did.

More than two decades after Davies hit a milestone moment with Queer as Folk, It’s a Sin is has been referred to as the first UK television drama to tackle the AIDS crisis “on a societal level.” That it has taken this long is shameful and Davies is keenly aware of other theater, TV, and movie productions that have portrayed this decade and subject matter. Recently, Pose has shown how the trans community was impacted by this crisis, and one drawback about It’s a Sin is the lack of trans representation.  

Dread turns to full-blown tragedy as more people are impacted, but amid the horror and tears, there is still humor and moments of levity. The synth and pop filled soundtrack is banger after ‘80s banger that continues long after the party stops — including the Pet Shop Boys track that gives this series its name. Shame and regret go hand-in-hand, but the exhilaration felt by each of these characters is not forgotten and Davies triumphs in this television masterpiece by emphasizing the celebrations before (and after) the curtain comes down.