Black characters and other characters of color should also have the right to die tragically in sweet, poignant stories about nightmarish moments in history. That’s a slightly off-center place to begin a review of Russell T Davies’s often beautifully moving limited series It’s a Sin, about the AIDS epidemic in London. But the series follows several young people throughout the 1980s and early ’90s as they experience the horrific toll of HIV and AIDS in the gay community, and one of the show’s foundational ideas is that the marginalization and shame of queer communities is key to what made the AIDS epidemic so devastating.
The series’s five episodes, which have already aired in the U.K. and hit HBO Max this Thursday, build toward a big closing thesis-statement-type monologue from Jill (Lydia West), the best friend of the show’s protagonist Ritchie (Olly Alexander). “It’s your fault,” Jill tells Ritchie’s mother Valerie (Keeley Hawes). Valerie made her son feel shame for who he is, Jill tells her, and that shame, the sense that gay life was embarrassing and less than fully human, is what fueled the disease’s spread. “The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying,” Jill tells Valerie, “and a little bit of them thinks, Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself; it’s my fault.” The marginalization of queer people in the U.K., the mainstream refusal to see queer lives as valuable and joyful, was a crucial cause of AIDS’s terrible impact.
For many of the main characters, It’s a Sin is a really wrenching, beautiful exploration of that idea, and the series begins with a kaleidoscopic, ensemble approach to its story. There’s closeted Ritchie, who moves to London from his small town on an island off the coast of England; there’s bashful Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who gets his first job in a fancy menswear store; and there’s Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who leaves home after his family tries to convert him with prayer and community shaming. They all eventually become friends with Jill, and especially in the first episode, there’s a sense that these stories will be three interwoven threads with relatively equal weight throughout the series. Ritchie and Colin are white; Roscoe and Jill are Black.
To fully explain the show’s preferences, its priorities in what kinds of characters get to be heroic martyrs and what characters watch sadly from the sidelines, I’d have to spoil it, to lay out exactly who dies and when and how. I’m not going to do that. In spite of my frustrations with the series, It’s a Sin is very much worth watching. Douglas, Howells, Alexander, and West are all fantastic. So many parts of the series are fun and funny and charming, and especially for American audiences, a story of the AIDS crisis based in London may bring a new facet to a story that’s often told as mostly about New York and San Francisco. But it’s a show about young gay people and the AIDS epidemic. Some of them are going to die. And It’s a Sin has a pretty noticeable pattern about who dies and who does not, a pattern that’s familiar from a seminal AIDS work like Angels in America, and yet one It’s a Sin has not managed to escape from many decades later.
It’s a knotty issue given the long and thorough history of Black characters who get chucked to the sidelines of fiction as easy death fodder. It’s not hard to see the problem of a science-fiction show or a horror movie where characters of color get eaten by the aliens in sad but ultimately meaningless ways and meanwhile all the white protagonists survive. For the most part, though, the genre of 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. It’s a Sin does a disservice to its Black characters and other characters of color (including Ash, an Indian man played by Nathaniel Curtis) in two different directions. On one side, shielding the characters of color from the worst ramifications of AIDS comes off as treating them with kid gloves, handling their stories as if they can’t shoulder the full brunt of the tragic weight. On the other side, the inevitable arc of a story like It’s a Sin gives more attention to characters who die. It has to in order to fully emphasize how sad and cruel everything is. The characters who survive become corollary players, necessary background voices of mourning for those who’ve been lost. It’s not hard to see It’s a Sin’s decision to shift most of its harshest outcomes onto white characters as an attempt to be graceful toward the characters of color. But it’s a choice that mistakes well-intentioned sidelining for grace.
I’m picking at this one frustrating element of It’s a Sin because it’s worth picking at, and because it suggests that something is not fully realized in the series’s thesis about shame, marginalization, and humanity. But it’s also worth highlighting the things in It’s a Sin that succeed where this one part falters. The show is painfully great at depicting terror and willing blindness in the early ’80s. Ritchie and his friends start to hear rumors but want so badly to ignore them, and the physical symptoms of AIDS-related illness start to loom over life like hovering Swords of Damocles. The idea that AIDS is a New York crisis becomes a shield and a huge problem in London. It seems like a sickness that’s too far away to worry about, but the distance also means that when Jill does want to learn more, she has no resources and no way to access new research. It’s a Sin is also a heartrending picture of the way gay men start to simply disappear, whisked away into locked hospital wards or taken home by their families to die, totally cut off from their friends and loved ones.
The show’s best quality, and the thing that saves It’s a Sin from being an unrelenting dirge, is that it refuses to slide into regret or underplay its characters’ joy. Early parts of the series, where Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin all move to London, are incredibly fun. There’s a deliberate decision to make the beginning of this story about how glorious and freeing it is for these characters to have a community, to love sex, to feel loved and seen for the first time in their lives. Yes, there’s a cloud over it all. AIDS is coming; the viewers know it and the characters do not, and it’s hard not to watch a happy sex montage and wonder if It’s a Sin is showing us the moment one of these characters gets infected. But it’s easy to imagine a version of this show that cuts this early part short, a version where one sex scene is all we get, or where the background music is something much more doom-filled than a disco remix of the “Hallelujah” chorus and the “William Tell Overture.” It’s a Sin does not want to skip over how joyful their lives are. Even later, when things start to get really bad, the series insists on returning to that idea. AIDS is not a moral judgment, and the horror of it does not make their joy something evil.
Happily, although It’s a Sin hoards its tragedy for certain kinds of characters, it is more willing to distribute even shares of its delight. It’s what saves the series for me. Characters like Roscoe and Jill are so frustrating — the series does not care enough about exploring their inner lives or letting them share the spotlight. But it does let them share in the joyful parts. It’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.