You won’t be able to stop thinking about “It’s A Sin.”
HBO Max’s superb series (streaming now, ★★★★ out of four), which aired in the U.K. in January, is the story of the 1980s AIDS crisis in London as told by a group of young friends experiencing fear, tragedy and community. Set during the pivotal decade of the epidemic, the series is heartbreaking but also joyful and wickedly funny: a deeply affecting character portrait of young lives snuffed out far too soon. It is easily the best series of 2021 so far, an affecting, fantastic piece of television.
Created by Russell T. Davies (“Queer as Folk,” “Years and Years”), “Sin” revolves around a group of young friends, most of them gay men, who share an apartment in London in the 1980s. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is an outgoing but struggling actor, at odds with his conservative family over his choice of theater instead of a career in law. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) runs away from his Nigerian immigrant family members after they attempt to pray his sexuality away, and eventually develops a relationship with a closeted politician (Stephen Fry). Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is a quiet but eager Welsh kid desperate for connection in the big city, who learns about London’s gay community through a kindly co-worker (Neil Patrick Harris).
Added to the group are Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), a dashing teacher; Gregory (David Carlyle), the elder statesman of the group; and Jill (Lydia West), an actress who went to college with Ritchie and Ash and developed an intensely close friendship with them.
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At first, the group, particularly Ritchie, is skeptical of whispered reports of a disease that only kills gay men, reveling in their newfound freedom to have sex, pursue their dreams and have fun away from parents and societal restrictions. But as friends are infected, the reality of the crisis sets in.
The way the characters fumble through trying to stay safe without accurate information, government guidance, or assistance is eerily reminiscent of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The series’ portrayal of the devastating homophobia of the government, medical system and society at the time is a biting indictment of those complicit in the epidemic that cost so many lives.
The young actors who make up the core of the cast are astoundingly skilled, especially Alexander and West. The frontman of music group Years & Years, Alexander brings charisma and magnetism to Ritchie, whose outward boisterousness is at odds with an internal shame. Jill occupies a unique space in the group, battling a disease for which she is at minimal risk, yet mostly powerless to help the friends who are dying around her. In a different, less capable production, Jill could be a cipher, simply there to add a female voice to a mostly male cast. But West and the script imbue her with depth and complexity.
There is terrible tragedy embedded into the framework of “Sin,” and the five-episode season includes a great deal of sadness. But it is not unrelenting or exhausting – much like real life, sadness is mixed with humor and joy. “Sin” is not pedantic or homework to get through. It is engrossing and emotional, without becoming overwhelming.
While HIV and AIDS figure prominently in the narrative of “Sin,” it is too reductive to classify it only as an “AIDS drama.” It is a series intimately in conversation with life and death, with the possibility of youth and the injustice of quashed potential. It is celebratory of the LGBTQ community, unabashedly sexy and fun, but moving and somber when it needs to be.
And it’s certainly not a sin.