When Russell T. Davies created his landmark gay drama series Queer As Folk, he wanted to avoid the topic of AIDS entirely. It was the late 1990s, and the height of the AIDS pandemic within the gay community had passed. Davies felt that gay culture had endured so much, had been stuck so wholly behind the prisms of disease and death, that he was insistent on depicting a complex, sexy, celebratory kind of hereafter for the living. The show was a sensation, in its way; the U.K. version and the subsequent U.S. iteration ran in funny tandem with Sex and the City, another late ’90s show created by a gay man that plays as a strenuous turning away from past darkness.
Perhaps in a delayed response to the criticism Davies received for Queer as Folk’s central omission, he has made It’s a Sin (HBO Max, February 18), a mini-series about the lives and deaths of young gay men in 1980s (and, briefly, 1990s) London. With It’s a Sin, Davies dials in on the topic of AIDS as thoroughly as he ignored it two decades ago. The series, which has been a smash since premiering in the U.K. last month, is not an act of contrition, though. If Davies wrings his hands, it is not about his deliberate time away from the topic. It’s a Sin strikes defiant poses, embraces itself, preens through its sorrow.
It’s an arresting series, flashy and sad. The first episode does a cruel kind of world building, introducing us to a trio of young men as they optimistically embark upon lives in London. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) leaves behind the prosaic stifle of his family on the Isle of Wight and sets off to become an actor. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) escapes his Nigerian family’s attempts at curing him of his gayness. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) still holds close to his Welsh roots while gazing, wide-eyed, at the emerging wonder of big-city living. It’s a sweet setup, all this expectant possibility, the nerves and the excitement.
There is a particularly lovely scene between Colin and his superior at the Savile Row tailor where he works. This older fellow, Henry (played by a tightly accented Neil Patrick Harris), susses out that Colin is gay and welcomes him to the family with an accommodating offhandedness. Colin is utterly boggled that someone should address this taboo topic so directly, with such wry honesty. He laughs, thrilled, and Henry flashes the warm and slightly weary smile of a fellow traveler.
This gentle, small moment contains a vastness. It evokes memories of when I first stepped, Bambi-legged, into the light of my own gay identity—as it will for many others, no doubt. It honors crucial generational exchange between gay people, putting lie to whispers of predation or grooming with a kindhearted display of camaraderie. Colin remains pretty buttoned up as the series goes on, but he has at least been freed in a fundamental sense, given permission to know himself openly.
Elsewhere, we see Ritchie having a grand old time of it in a prolonged sex montage, happily bedding a host of men he’s met while out dancing, carefree and turned on by life’s sudden feast. But that spirit of carnal liberation is undermined by what we in the audience know, what the series foreshadows in all its early merriment: it’s 1981, and at least some of these kids are spinning toward oblivion. Something terrible is making its way through these pubs and apartments, silent and lethal. Seeing the good times further clarifies the loss, of course. But even trusting in that storytelling arithmetic, the shift in tones as disease descends is wrenching, AIDS as plot twist.
Which, I guess, in some cynical view, it was. The plague saw so many lives interrupted and snuffed out. At its most successful, It’s a Sin captures the earthquake of that, this catastrophic disruption of a world carefully assembled in the margins. The series palpably renders, as other narratives about AIDS have, the mind-reeling shock of mass death, and the particularly nasty way that AIDS casualties were (and still are) yoked to notions of consequence and punishment. Through that ruin and scorn, though, what’s left of this band of friends still marches on. The series admirably depicts the present-tense reality of life during apocalyptic times; Davies allows the quotidian to exist next to the grandly tragic, ambition and hunger to survive amid so much finality.
One constant in the story is Jill (Lydia West), the straight girlfriend of the group who finds purpose in mutual aid and activism. She is never given a love interest, nor much history. It’s my understanding that Jill is based on someone specific, but she is also something of a stand-in for the many women who were there alongside sick and dying men, acting as confidants and estate planners, nurses and champions and mourners. Jill does function that way in the series, but she alone might not be enough. It’s a Sin’s purview is narrow—largely cis male and white. Which by no means encompasses everyone who was present in that era. Jill, as wisely as she is played by West, is underserved by her vagueness; she is an insufficient emblem of everyone else. Roscoe, too, is given short shrift, further limiting the series’s scope.
Jill does get the last big word of the series, though—which is maybe where It’s a Sin makes another stumble. Davies seems intent on finding a source for all of this suffering, to trace its knotted cord to a root. He determines that it’s shame—instilled in gay men by straight society, forcing them into the dark of anonymous sex and lonely death. In the final episode, Jill admonishes the mother of a dead friend, blaming this brittle, unyielding bigot—and all those like her—for warping her son into a self-loathing spreader of a virus that was killing him. The scene is meant to be a reckoning, cognizant of the internalized shame of gay life at the time (and since) but shifting its onus off of the afflicted and onto those who nurtured it into them. It’s a powerful moment, keenly acted by West and Keeley Hawes.
But the scene assumes the shame, takes it for a near universal given. I have no doubt that shame was a factor, lurking among many others. But to place it so prominently at the center of this series almost occludes all the grace and nuance and bonhomie shown to us earlier. Shame is what begins to lift in Colin and Henry’s giddy moment of recognition, what is cast aside with clothing and bedsheets in Ritchie’s joyful bacchanal. Some of it lingers, yes, and maybe resurges as illness creeps closer. But to lay this shame so fully upon these boys’ bodies once they are gone feels unfair, a kind of baptism after death. It’s a strangely bitter note to end the series on, this grim verdict handed down so decisively. I didn’t think that was what I had been watching for four plus hours, a series about the gnarled thing at the heart of these young men, waiting to undo them.
The title of the series comes from a Pet Shop Boys song, which does concern itself with shame. For most of the series, though, I took the title to be ironic, flippant about prudish moral judgment. The last episode, though, reframes Davies’s intent. Maybe the reference isn’t so cheeky after all.
It’s a Sin is best when it avoids such didactic point-making, when it has yet to issue any grave conclusions. As Ritchie and the gang simply try to live their lives—generous, selfish, scared, awed, horny, in love—the series affords them the roundness denied them by aggregate assessment. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be auditing of all that happened; there has been plenty, and will be more. Davies, though, affixes a message to the end of his particular work that needn’t be there. We have already, in the fullness of the series, gotten to know the social, sexual, political intricacies of these characters. They don’t need monologues explaining what killed them. They have a whole series showing us what they lived for.
— Evan Rachel Wood and Other Women Make Allegations of Abuse Against Marilyn Manson— The Bachelor Has a Bachelor Problem— Gina Carano Strikes Back After Star Wars Implosion— Buffy the Vampire Slayer Star Charisma Carpenter Speaks Out About Joss Whedon— First Look at Jared Leto’s Eerie Joker in Zack Snyder’s Justice League— Oscars 2021: The Best Bets for Best Picture— For the latest awards-season news, sign up to receive text message updates from the Little Gold Men podcast hosts— From the Archive: Mia Farrow’s Story
— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.