It’s A Sin: A Harrowing, Heartbreaking and Eerily Pertinent Masterpiece

A terrible virus with millions of casualties. 

Bumbling authority figures with no idea of how to stop it.

Fear and misinformation spreading like wildfire. 

No, I’m not describing the current coronavirus situation, I’m talking about It’s A Sin: a new five-part miniseries set against the backdrop of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis.

As a child of the 2000s, I must admit that I did not know a great deal of information on the time period in which the show is set. Of course, HIV/AIDS is still a huge and ongoing issue in the modern-day, particularly in the developing world where the kinds of treatments we take for granted aren’t readily available, but I had no clue as to its long and tragic history, and I know I’m not the only one. It is, for this reason, I believe it so important that everyone, particularly those of my generation and later, watches this show.

Written by Russell T Davies, It’s A Sin follows a group of five twenty-something young Londoners during the AIDS epidemic. As they are forced to navigate through this eventful period of time, the fantastic five become more and more embroiled in the horror and heartbreak caused by the spread of the virus as it slowly impinges upon their lives. Having grown up a gay man in the 1980s, Davies knows exactly how it felt to live through those years of fear and dread, and imbues the scripts with a palpable sense of that lived experience at every turn. Because of this, the show feels brilliantly raw and tangible, and that’s its greatest success.

Davies, with his work on the likes of Doctor Who, Years and Years and Queer as Folk, has undeniably created some of the most iconic British television of the last few decades, and once again plays a blinder with this harrowing, heartbreaking and eerily pertinent masterpiece. But, brilliant as he is, he couldn’t have achieved it alone, and unreserved acclaim should be given to the many fantastic actors and actresses through which the story unfolds.

Written by Russell T Davies, It’s A Sin follows a group of five twenty-something young Londoners during the AIDS epidemic.

The cast is led by Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, who plays the hedonistic Richie Tozer: a young gay man who moves to London to pursue a career in acting. He’s joined by Omari Douglas as the unrepentantly defiant Roscoe, a second-generation Nigerian who must face his religious family’s constant attempts to “cure” him of his homosexuality, and Callum Scott Howells as Colin, who finds himself a fish out of water when he leaves Wales to pursue new horizons in London. All three are incredibly strong actors who excellently bring out both the unapologetic sense of fun and emotional sensitivity of Davies’ scripts.

The main cast is rounded off by Lydia West (who previously starred in Davies’ Years and Years) as Jill: a headstrong young girl who wants nothing more than to keep her three friends safe from the horrors they must face. Based on Davies’ own friend, Jill is undeniably the emotional heart of the show and is brought to life beautifully by West. The show also features veteran actors, the likes of Keeley Hawes, Shaun Dooley, Neil Patrick-Harris, Tracy Ann Oberman and Stephen Fry, all of whom perfectly compliment the younger members of the cast in doing justice to such important material.

Now, you might be thinking: why would I want to watch something like this? I don’t need to watch TV to imagine the horrors of what it’s like to go through a global pandemic.

The show feels brilliantly raw and tangible.

But that’s not what It’s A Sin is. Certainly, it’s downbeat in places, sometimes even downright harrowing, and rightly so. After all, to truly capture that terrible epidemic, it was absolutely necessary that Davies showed each and every one of its facets: the good, the bad and the horrendous. But this is far more than just five hours of misery porn. 

What surprised me about It’s A Sin is just how uplifting it could be. As much as it deals with such terrible issues as HIV, AIDS and homophobia, it is also a rapturous appreciation of life, and youth, and love: full of so much unexpected, irreverent joy. 

The whole show is very clearly a labour of love: love for all of those brave men and women who died from AIDS, who faced abuse and were denied support, care and sympathy simply due to the stigma surrounding it. Davies simultaneously elegises the tragedy of their deaths, and celebrates the beauty of their lives, reminding us that they are defined not by the terrible disease that took them away, but by the brilliant things they did whilst they were alive.

It is also a rapturous appreciation of life, and youth, and love: full of so much unexpected, irreverent joy.

That’s why, despite how heartbreaking it is, it’s hard not to come away from It’s A Sin feeling, rather strangely, something quite the opposite of sadness. Perhaps this is a consequence of its similarity to the trying times we’re currently living through, or maybe Davies is just such a good writer that he’s capable of squeezing a little enjoyment out of even the darkest subject matter.

Either way, it’s hard not to be attracted to the show’s affirmation that, even in the darkest of times, even when the whole world seems against you, even when there doesn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s always, always possible to find a little joy in life.

It’s A Sin is currently streaming on All 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/its-a-sin

By Daniel Mansfield

Photo by Travis Colbert on Unsplash

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