“It’s a Sin” Review: An Emotionally Masterful Look at the UK’s AIDS Crisis

It's a Sin tv series review
It’s a Sin (Image: Screengrab)

Russell T. Davies, well known for creating genre-changing content (we all know how Queer as Folk changed the TV landscape), masterfully tackles the AIDS crisis in the five-episode miniseries It’s a Sin.

This review of It’s a Sin contains major spoilers.

Even though the queer community continues to fight for the right to love and live, current times (in certain countries) have become comparatively better and there’s hope things will only improve down the line. However, the freedoms being experienced in the present have an unfortunate history, with a long chapter being that of the AIDS crisis.

While I’m not a huge fan of queer-centric sad narratives, I’ll give a piece of media a chance if it’s well-written. And yes, It’s a Sin is incredibly well-written. The five episodes will deliver a barrage of emotional punches. You know things won’t turn out great for most of the main cast and yet, you will continue watching.

Beginning in September of 1981, It’s a Sin opens with three young gay men (Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin) moving to London to live their dreams.

Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is studying to become a barrister. He’s not out to his family and he can’t wait to reach the mainland to live a more open life. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) runs away from home after his family’s continuous attempts to pray the gay out of him. Colin (Callum Scott) gets a job at a well-known shop for men’s suits. 

I liked how the narrative made our lead cast of characters meet each other in a realistic manner and become a chosen family. After befriending Jill (Lydia West) and Ash Mukerjee (Nathaniel Curtis), Ritchie starts becoming more open with exploring his sexuality. As someone who has been living life in the closet, he’s all about having as many casual hookups as possible as a growing teenager. 

Knowing where the narrative is headed, you can’t help but notice certain warning signs. When Ritchie’s dad accompanies him to the mainland, he hands Ritchie a box of contraceptives. And of course, Ritchie throws the box away because as a gay man, back in the day, contraceptives were of no use to him. There are also whispers from background characters about a mysterious ‘cancer’ killing homosexuals in the USA. Seeing Ritchie being so nonchalant about how many men he sleeps with (without any sort of protection) makes you worry about him quite early.

After running away from home, Roscoe enters Ritchie’s life and from there Roscoe also becomes friends with Ash and Jill.

Colin, on the other hand, takes more time to join the main group. While he’s addressing the crush he has on his landlady’s son, Colin strikes a wonderful friendship with his co-worker Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris). Henry’s living the life that Colin dreams of. Henry’s in a committed relationship with another man (I think they have been living together for more than two decades) and their neighbors are okay with it.

Henry’s also providing Colin protection from their predatory boss who is into hooking up with younger boys. The good news is that the boss is arrested after getting caught with a boy in a public toilet. The bad news is that Colin’s friendship with Henry doesn’t last long because, you guessed it, Henry dies of AIDS-related causes.

The scene in the hospital where Colin goes to meet Henry is devastating. The doctors didn’t know what was going on and, frankly, a lot of them didn’t care. It was a disease killing gay men. Homophobes were okay with that.

By the end of the first episode, he does meet the other leads and they all move in together. I loved the ending sequence of the premiere episode. It had Colin, Ritchie, and Roscoe looking forward to the next chapter in their life. They were being asked where they saw themselves in five or ten years, however, at the same time death had begun occurring around them.   

Episode 2 opened in December 1983, and the way certain members of the queer community acted resembled what we have been seeing in the real world due to the current pandemic. While Jill’s clearly worried about what’s happening, Ritchie’s out and about spreading conspiracy theories about how the mysterious gay disease is a hoax and it is all a tactic to stop gay men from having fun.

Over the past year, we have seen misinformation and conspiracy theories spread like wildfire. The narrative in It’s a Sin was no different. There will always be people who will gladly refuse to not believe scientific facts or warning signs because they feel accepting such information will create an inconvenience in their daily routine.

Having said that, you can’t help but understand (a bit of) where Ritchie’s coming from. Why should gay men like him live in fear when the government isn’t doing anything about it? Ritchie’s thinking is basically, “Surely, the government would have placed certain policies to help if the mysterious disease was actually dangerous, right?”

Oh! Ritchie. I wanted to reach through the screen and tell him the government couldn’t care less about why the queer community was being killed by a mysterious ailment.

Episode 3, opening in March of 1986, hurt me the most. Colin lost his life and his death confused his friends. Unlike Ritchie, Colin wasn’t about casual hookups and yet he still got infected because of a certain decision he made years ago. My heart!

With the AIDS crisis in the UK being something our remaining leads couldn’t ignore anymore, I liked how each of them found the power to fight for their community. With the government not doing anything, the queer community had to force politicians to take action. And though the situation finally improved in the years to come, it’s still important to look at such a dark chapter in queer history, especially because many who lived through it are still alive.

Even though the main narrative is quite somber, I appreciated Davies adding a bit of levity where possible. That’s just how life is. Even in the bleakest of times, there are going to be moments that can be used to encourage a smile. 

The acting is superb across the board. According to IMDb, It’s a Sin is the first major acting gig for Curtis, Douglas, and Scott. Wow!

I would also like to take this time to praise actress Keeley Hawes as Ritchie’s mother Valerie Tozer. Her performance as a woman not willing to accept the reality of her son’s health was amazing. I wasn’t expecting such a shift in her character during the finale. But looking back at the series, there were signs, with one of them being the moment where she didn’t say “I love you, too” back to Ritchie during a phone call. Jill was right to make a stand against her and state how Valerie impacted Ritchie’s personality.   

I also liked the song choices from that era. My only complaint would be about It’s a Sin not having bisexual representation even though bisexuals are name-dropped. From what I know, stories about the AIDS crisis don’t highlight the bisexual perspective for some reason. They also don’t highlight what queer women went through during that time. Maybe someday that will change.

To end my review, I would say you should consider watching It’s a Sin. The five episodes (each being approximately 50 minutes long) do an incredible job of telling a story about the lives of gay men during the AIDS crisis in the UK back in 1981 and going all the way up to 1991. It will likely make you cry, but trust me when I say you need to view this masterful piece of media.

The first episode premiered on Channel 4 on January 22, 2021, with the fifth episode scheduled to air on February 19, 2021. All five episodes are available to stream on Channel 4’s streaming service. HBO Max will stream It’s a Sin on February 18, 2021.

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Author: Farid-ul-Haq

Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.

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