Joy. Friendship. Fear. Pain. Loss. Unimaginable, heartbreaking, gut wrenching loss. That is life in the 1980s for London’s gay community in It’s A Sin (HBO Max). Starting in 1981, the show follows a group of friends through ten years of life and death, making strong social statements and pandemic parallels that are still relevant today.
Richie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) meet after moving to London to be free from the small-minded expectations of their families and hometowns. They meet Jill (Lydia West) who brings along her friends Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Gregory (David Carlyle). All but Greg end up renting a dilapidated flat dubbed The Pink Palace and set out on a decade long journey that will have far fewer people at the end. They live in the growing shadow of the AIDS crisis, but It’s A Sin is primarily a story about friendship and love. And between excellent writing and shot choices by the director, we fall in love with the characters, flaws and all. This is easily the best work on the AIDS crisis I’ve seen since HBO’s adaptation of Angels In America. And the perspective from London adds an extra layer, as people trying to deny the crisis kept calling it a problem for New York and San Francisco, too far away to be real in their lives.
And when I say this occurs in the shadow of the emerging crisis, it’s because It’s A Sin doesn’t forget to celebrate their humanity with scenes of joy. AIDS isn’t really a thing when the series begins in 1981. The group forms their bonds, goes to pub, hooks up, and celebrates the invincibility of youth. But watching them live their lives is heartbreaking for viewers. We know what’s coming, they do not.
The Real Sin
It’s A Sin will evoke a wide range of emotions. You love the gang. You will be angry at how gays are marginalized. You will be appalled at how the sick are treated and how long it took to get the results of an HIV test (six weeks!). You will rage at the government responses that ranged from indifference at best to open hostility at worst. You will cry not just for the dead, but for the survivors and the lost possibilities.
I set out to binge this (a little over four hours) but couldn’t hold it together. It’s A Sin is as emotionally draining as it can be. Watching patients be essentially kidnapped by hospitals or their estranged families, cutting off contact with all friends, is infuriating. But It’s A Sin is a fantastic story from beginning to end. My only complaint is that we know a little about a lot of characters and only a lot about a couple of the stars. A sixth episode to flesh out more on the supporting cast would have been well worth it.
But in the end, this is a show that’s going to haunt me for awhile, because the ghosts of the characters represent the ghosts of real people we’ve lost along the way. Personal losses, and losses to humanity.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I’m having a pint of Dark Star cask ale. It was one of my favorites when in London, and the best moments for It’s A Sin are when they are singing, celebrating, and bonding down at pub. Cheers!