It’s a Sin
The first episode of Russell T. Davies’s new show It’s a Sin ends with a question: “What are you gonna do, when you’re older?” It’s posed to our three protagonists in different professional scenarios where they’re asked, point blank, what kind of futures they envision for themselves. As a piece of narrative punctuation, the question is intended as a not-so-thinly-veiled gut-punch. Davies’s series, after all, is squarely set in 1980s London. And, having spent its first hour introducing us to a central trio of young out gay men eager to finally live their lives with fabulous abandon at their self-named “Pink Palace” apartment, we know those whispers of a “gay plague” that hovered at the edges of this episode will no doubt derail whatever hopes and dreams Ritchie (Years &Years’s Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) have for themselves.
Such a closing scene would be cruel were it not also cravenly manipulative. It feels like the equivalent of a “What could possibly go wrong?” query. The wide-eyed wonder and hope we see in those fresh-faced lads, in close-ups that suggest they’re speaking right at us, all but demands we preemptively mourn for them, for the lives they won’t get to live. It feels like an all too obvious thesis statement for the show as a whole, a way of telling rather than showing what it sets out to do as it tells a story about the early years of the AIDS epidemic.
But perhaps I should rewind. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get some basic details out of the way first: The year is 1981 and when we first meet them, our three leads are gleefully headed to London: Ritchie is leaving his family to pursue his studies, taking with him those gay porn magazines he’d kept hidden in his room. Roscoe, aghast at the prospect of being sent back to Nigeria, cusses his parents off while wearing a miniskirt and some eye shadow and departs for good. Colin, meanwhile, has left Wales after finding himself a cushy job in Savile Row where his co-worker can instantly tell he’s a “bender.” If these bite-sized introductions feel perfunctory it’s because It’s a Sin breezes through them with equal efficiency.
Indeed, the first episode of Davies’s period drama is a whirlwind, rushing us through an entire year in the life of free-spirited Ritchie, idgaf Roscoe, and wallflower Colin to get us to the point where, as we see in those final minutes, each of the three comes face to face with a question about what they see in their future. Ritchie, having forgone Law in favor of Drama, eagerly tells his soon-to-be-agent he just wants to find work; Roscoe, summoned to the local pub he and mates frequent, is asked whether he’s up to the task of managing the beloved queer space; and Colin, celebrating a year at his new job, is gently nudged into seeing a future for himself at the shop. The lead-up to those interviews is a series of vignettes at their Pink Palace: We see each of them wake up, shower, and get dressed with nary a delay — a miracle when you realize their five-person flat only boasts one bathroom. It’s all rather schematic: We get to see each flatmate model their outfit for the day for their two other roommates (Lydia West’s Jill and Nathaniel Curtis’s Ash) before uttering what’s become an inside-joke between them all: “La!” It’s perhaps all a bit too twee, but such a descriptor doesn’t really capture the way Davies wants us to fall for these young men who are learning how to be unabashedly themselves.
But the winking sensibility It’s a Sin wants to coast on feels a bit forced. Seeing Ritchie roll his eyes when his dad gives him a pack of condoms lest he get some London lass pregnant and proceed to throw them away is the kind of scene that wears its irony so bluntly that it almost becomes cringe-worthy. Similarly, the moment when we first hear about a certain “gay cancer” running rampant in the U.S., Davies has us focus instead on Ritchie lusting after Ash at distance, those rumors remaining ever so slightly off screen so as to mimic, perhaps, the way Ritchie later dismisses the show’s Cassandra-like character who insists what’s happening is a plague: “It’d be all over the news!” (To drive the point home, the episode finds Ash actually reading a story about the mystery virus as his roommates head out.)
No scene better encapsulates the show’s efforts at subverting the stories it’s nevertheless trying to tell than the fake-out “coming out” scene we witness at Richie’s home. The moment is very much set up as a chance for Ritchie to come clean with his parents about his life. Only, rather than have it hinge on his sexuality, Davies opts instead to have him come out about forgoing Law and pursuing Drama, an admission, of course, that it’s easier to have that conversation than the other one. I couldn’t shake off the sense that in trying so hard to misdirect us the show was wasting time in exploring who its characters were in service of facile bait-and-switch moments.
The only character who feels fully formed — or, better yet, fully fleshed out — in this episode is Mr. Coltrane, Colin’s co-worker. Played by Neil Patrick Harris with a permanently raised brow throughout, he tells us all we need to know about him when, sitting at home with his partner and Colin (with a male nude hovering all of them in the background) he sidesteps a question about his family with the simple: “I’ve moved on.” Later, when he wonders out loud whether it was the mold in his home that ended up claiming his partner’s life and soon his own, his tragedy feels both small and poignant in equal measure. I do wish the score throughout those hospital scenes (not to mention a production design that stresses his isolation to almost comic effect) had been toned down. Then again, this is a show that plays off a hand-washing moment turned potential sexual workplace harassment into a comic set piece at the expense of an old and chubby character.
I know I’m coming off hard on It’s a Sin, but there are bright spots here — Davies’s game cast is a treat and I’m eager to see these actors be given more to do in the coming episodes. I’m always famished for more stories about how that generation of young men grappled with a world-changing pandemic, and so it is refreshing to see It’s a Sin dive headfirst into a glittering environment that felt so radical and full of hope. Which is why I’m optimistic. Maybe, as they say, it will get better.
• “Of course we don’t have a fucking parrot!” may be the most quotable line of the episode, equally absurd and hilarious. (Runner-up: “They know. They’ve always known. It’s like the official history of the world says that men like us have been hidden away in secret. But then there’s the real world where we’ve been living in.”)
• It wouldn’t be an ’80s gay period drama without a jukebox-ready soundtrack and in that department It’a Sin delivers. Then again, no show that features Blondie, Bronski Beat, and Kelly Marie in the same episode can go too wrong.
• Am I a bit miffed that Ritchie (in baby drag, no less!) is set up to deliver a musical number only to intone a single word (“La!”) and thus deprive us all of Olly Alexander’s vocal skills? Yes, yes I am.