It’s a Sin
“If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you, we’re in real trouble. If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth. Our continued existence depends on just how angry you can get.” So wrote Larry Kramer back in 1983 in the pages of the New York Native in an op-ed titled “1,112 and Counting.” It’s one of the many pieces of literature Colin (Callum Scott Howells) brings back from his trip to New York City for Jill (episode MVP Lydia West), who’s had difficulty finding information on that most whispered about of viruses on the other side of the Atlantic. She’s concerned, you see, because their friend Greg, a.k.a. Gloria (David Carlyle), developed symptoms and was later whisked away by his parents back to Glasgow. She knows young men around her are dying, but she can’t get any of her friends to truly pay attention. Even getting information from her doctor is hard. He dismisses her questions about AIDS with such craven homophobia (“Why on earth would I have anything to do with that?”) that just watching the scene, and knowing how common such medical indifference was, most definitely got me angry.
Which brings me back to Kramer’s line. The characters in It’s a Sin are firmly established as the very kind of gay men Kramer was trying (and often failing) to reach with his piece. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) and Roscoe (Omari Douglas), for instance, dismissively look down on those wanting to distribute pamphlets about the virus at the bar they frequent, which leads to the tour-de-force moment of this episode: a screed against the kind of alarmist rhetoric Kramer’s op-ed typified. Ritchie won’t have any of it. At a time when disinformation about what was then still mostly referred to as “GRID” (gay-related immune deficiency) and “gay cancer,” Ritchie gets to voice many (actually all?) of the defensive arguments against taking talk of such a disease seriously. During a continuous monologue that’s delivered half to his friends and half to the audience as he and his friends gallivant around several London bars, Ritchie parades everything from conspiracy theories (“It’s a money-making scheme”) to otherwise valid apprehensions (about the homophobic rhetoric surrounding it).
As with much else in It’s a Sin, this kind of efficient storytelling (the show loves itself a montage) makes the message of Ritchie’s rant feel diluted by its delivery, which sounds like a parody of a ’90s-era stand-up set: “Imagine it: Gay cancer! How is a cancer ‘gay’? I mean, what does it look like? Is it pink? Where is it? Is it in the wrist?” (Yes, that’s verbatim what he says.) It was a moment when I found myself asking who It’s a Sin is for? Another way of putting it: Why is a story like It’s a Sin coming to our screens in 2021? On the one hand, considering how much of what Ritchie spouts sounds like a kind of “Fake News! Wake up sheeple!” tirade, there’s no escaping the way his righteous appeals ring differently in the age of COVID misinformation, whose discussions of personal responsibility and government inaction have felt like déjà vu for many within the queer community (see, for instance, the GaysOverCovid controversy). Wanting to place us in the headspace of those who saw any talk of a “gay disease” as an affront to their very lives, It’s a Sin at times can seem like an all too blunt Very Special Episode. Which may very well be what many of us need right now: a way to understand current ethical debates over COVID safety in light of what happened last time the world was faced with a novel epidemic. See, for instance, the moment when Jill asks her roommates what it would mean if they could stop the spread of the virus if only they stopped sleeping around, a question she’s keen to frame not in terms of judging their promiscuity but of valuing the possible safety of others.
Yet I keep wanting the characters to operate as something more than spokespeople for these debates. For It’s a Sin to truly sit with Roscoe as he navigates what it means to be so distanced from his family; for Colin to process what happened to him at work. This is all fertile ground for what creator Russell T. Davies is exploring in this generation that couldn’t possibly have seen what was coming. But beyond the good intentions and the loving re-creations of 1980s London (the less we say about the show’s “Manhattan circa 1983,” the better), I think I’m mostly annoyed with It’s a Sin’s pacing issues. I remarked, initially, on how the first episode breezed through a year in the life of the characters, only to find that the brisk pace would not relent going forward. By the end of episode two, three full years have passed since Colin first moved to London (which sadly means his apprenticeship is suddenly proclaimed over). At times, it made me wish the show would slow down and linger a tad longer with its characters. I mean, what do we know about, say, Colin, outside of the fact that he’s shy and likely a virgin?
Instead, something like Gloria’s disappearance from everyone’s social circle is taken care of in the span of a few minutes via consecutive scenes in which he is due at a party, doesn’t show up, misses work, and is eventually found, sick at home, by Jill. We don’t get a chance to miss Gloria because the sped-up pacing of the episode means we find out his fate almost right away. Just as Mr. Coltrane’s arc was dispensed with in one episode, Gloria’s fate is revealed at the end of this episode in a touching and infuriating scene where we see his family burning his possessions. It’s the rare moment where It’s a Sin shows rather than tells, letting those burning photographs of Gloria and his friends amid a grief-stricken family ashamed of what became of their son speak volumes.
Such a moment shows just how powerful It’s a Sin can be and why it may still find ways of surprising me in the episodes ahead. We’ll just have to wait and see.
• “Am I sacked?” “No, it’s more like you’re not employed any more.” Poor Colin. His story line continues to have so many fascinating wrinkles (sexual harassment, workplace discrimination — heck, the trauma of seeing his colleague die!), and yet the show rarely stays with any one of them long enough for it to pack a punch.
• Ask and you shall receive: Last time, I bemoaned the fact that we’d been denied the chance to hear Olly Alexander (of Years & Years fame) sing — and lo and behold, this second episode corrects that almost immediately (with a Barry Manilow song, no less!), giving us several numbers throughout as Ritchie and Jill work bar gigs to earn themselves an equity card.
• Speaking of music, sometimes a music cue is too much on the nose: I’m looking at you, “Kids in America” which plays while Colin walks around New York City. But overall, I’m still digging this throwback soundtrack a lot.
• Before we part: Let’s take a moment to praise the costume design of the show. And while you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m pining after Ritchie’s and Roscoe’s wardrobes (which are, I’ll admit, fab), I’ve actually fallen in love with Jill’s knitwear, including that gorgeous fuzzy fuchsia sweater. You know the one.