It’s a Sin, the limited series from creator Russel T Davies about the onset of the AIDS crisis in Great Britain, has been something of an instant sensation. When the show first aired in weekly installments back in January on the UK’s Channel 4, it immediately broke viewing records, becoming the network’s most successful series launch to date. The AIDS epidemic has been regularly depicted in film and literature in the US epicenters of New York and San Francisco, so Davies, who created the cult 1999 series Queer as Folk, endeavored to shed light on the lesser-shown British experience. When whispers of a mysterious illness killing young gay men in the States first reached Europe, there was so little readily available public information that many people didn’t believe it was really happening until their friends and lovers started dying en masse. It’s a Sin’s searing depiction of the tragedy has earned it glowing accolades from international critics, including multiple 5-star reviews. It’s no surprise, then, that when the series started streaming on HBO Max in the US late last month it became a veritable transatlantic hit.
We meet our cast of characters as they’re making their way from less-than-accepting home lives throughout England to the fabulous queer nightlife of London. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) was never out to his family, while Roscoe (Omari Douglas) is forced to flee when he learns his father plans to send him back to Nigeria to “cure” him of homosexuality — which could possibly get him killed. There’s Colin, or, as his friends lovingly call him, Gladys Pugh (Callum Scott Howells), the innocent, wide-eyed doe who hasn’t had much experience with sex. And there are a few other gay men circling their orbit. Long before any of them are forced to come face-to-face with the crushing reality of the virus, however, at least one of them has internalized so much familial homophobia that he’s doomed from the very beginning.
That idea — that the punishment and marginalization of queer people by their straight families fueled the fires of the AIDS epidemic — is central to the show’s worldview, which becomes clear by the fifth and final episode. Jill (Lydia West), the gang’s straight best friend, has been trying to convince the mother of one of their friends to let them see him as he lies dying alone in his childhood bedroom. “It’s your fault,” Jill tells the mother. “The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself; it’s my fault.”
I was moved to tears more than once while barrelling through It’s a Sin in one long, difficult, emotional sitting. Ultimately, however, the show left me a little cold for its over-the-top insistence on queer self-hatred’s role in the crisis, as well as its replications of some troubling AIDS tropes.
Of course, familial homophobia can and does have ruinous effects. Writer, activist, and professor Sarah Schulman documented as much in her groundbreaking 2009 book, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences. Though Schulman, an AIDS historian and former ACT UP member, has also extensively documented the other, arguably greater evils responsible for AIDS’s devastation: corporate greed, governmental neglect, institutional violence.
I was angry at the mother in It’s a Sin, and the other parents depicted who abandoned their children as they died, who blamed them and burned their belongings. But when Jill quite explicitly places all of the blame for this mass death at one mother’s feet, I felt like the series was vastly oversimplifying a public health crisis whose lessons we’ve largely still failed to learn.
At the heart of the show is Ritchie, a charming aspiring actor who gleefully parties and sleeps his way through London. The show’s early scenes of queer pleasure and joy are among its strongest, though perhaps that’s my bias talking: Nothing’s ever looked so good as dancing to phenomenal music with your friends when you’ve gone without IRL queer community for a year. But Ritchie, ebullient as he may be in his prime, is at his heart your classic closet case, who in denying his true self to his family also denies the reality of the virus — so much so that (spoiler), long after Ritchie knows he’s been infected, he keeps having unprotected sex. “I knew it was wrong and I kept on doing it. I wonder how many I killed?” he ruminates from his hospital bed.
Brian Mullin, a person living with HIV who reviewed the series for the Los Angeles Times, writes that “Davies vividly evokes a climate of fear that saw gay men painted as pitiful victims, or worse, as potential killers … certain tropes may have mutated since the days when headlines shouted ‘Britain Threatened by Gay Plague,’ but they are no less pernicious for being less obvious or for coming from the pen of a gay creator.” Ritchie, he notes, is reduced from joyful libertine to “an abject figure begging his (straight) high school crush for oral sex: ‘You could just lie back and close your eyes.’”
The other character to contract HIV given a major plotline — also a white boy — represents the other side of the “AIDS victim coin,” as Mullin puts it. Where Ritchie self-flagellates for his role in infecting himself and others, sweet and seemingly virginal Colin is felled by his first and only sexual experience, revealed in a sickening plot twist of flashbacks; the scenes of Colin having sex are intercut with scenes of him dying. And ultimately, “after their deaths,” Mullin writes, “it is up to their straight friend, Jill, to speak for them.”
Kathryn VanArendonk, in her mixed review for Vulture, explains what’s at issue with killing off only white characters. She acknowledges that in other genres, like sci-fi or horror, Black characters’ early deaths can feel random and cruel; but “It’s a Sin is tragedy, and in tragedies, the characters who die are the ones whose lives are most valued, whose sacrifices are considered most meaningful and most sad.” The show’s writers, in choosing who will live and who will die, might have been trying to be “graceful toward the characters of color. But it’s a choice that mistakes well-intentioned sidelining for grace.”
Though the characters participate in a die-in, and Jill gets involved in helping gay strangers navigate the virus, It’s a Sin is not really about AIDS activism. In that sense, I can see why the show positions family members as the Big Bads rather than, say, Thatcher’s government, or pharmaceutical companies withholding lifesaving medicine. Those elements of history are present, and portrayed unfavorably, but they aren’t necessarily central to the narrative. For that kind of story, you’d need to watch something like Robin Campillo’s extraordinary French film BPM (Beats Per Minute), which won the Grand Prix at its Cannes premiere in 2017 — a much stronger AIDS drama and more affecting piece of art in general.
And yet It’s a Sin is arguably benefiting from our current climate, when corporations have been eager to harness the power of last year’s George Floyd protests and antiracist activism into favorable PR. Jason Rosenberg, a member of ACT UP New York, tweeted this week that the It’s a Sin promo packages HBO Max sent to influencers included ACT UP buttons, even though the series doesn’t even mention the group. According to Rosenberg, the organization wasn’t consulted over its logo’s use. “It’s strange to watch ACT UP once again get used as some type of corporate accessory,” Rosenberg wrote. “As if ACT UP doesn’t still exist and HIV isn’t still ongoing. This is how history gets erased and communities get neglected.” He pointed out that while It’s a Sin’s characters participated in a die-in, the event seemed to have bloomed from thin air, or else from Jill’s solo maneuvering. “Protests like this didn't just magically happen,” he wrote. “They happened because of real orgs, such as ACT UP London.” But you wouldn’t have known that from watching this show, in which the systemic forces responsible for the worst of AIDS’s devastation are mostly background noise, and the organizers responsible for holding those forces accountable — and bringing the first stage of an ongoing crisis to a close — are nowhere to be found. ●