Review: Calling 'It's A Sin' a 'Poignant Masterpiece' is Not an Exaggeration

by Roger Walker-Dack

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday February 20, 2021

Olly Alexander in 'It's A Sin'
Olly Alexander in 'It's A Sin'  

Just two days ago, Russell T. Davies' highly-anticipated five-part queer drama "It's A Sin" began airing on the UK's Channel 4. In short order, it has become the most buzzed-about and most binge-watched LGBTQ series in a very long time.

Davies, whose long resume includes the ground-breaking original "Queer As Folk" series, is being greeted with rave reviews, like that from The Guardian, which calls the new show a "poignant masterpiece." That is not an exaggeration.

"It's A Sin," which has been labeled an AIDS drama, is so much more than that. Any gay man of any age who had a difficult coming out and had to deal with a hostile family will be able to relate to this story. It's about three provincial British 18-year-old boys who, in 1981, have no choice but to escape to London in order to become their true selves.

Ritchie (Olly Alexander), the most gregarious of the three, leaves his suburban home on the Isle of Wight (a small island of the UK's south coast that is a favorite of retirees). His plan to study law soon evaporates, and he decides to be a drama student so he can become a famous actor. Egged on his new best friend Jill (Lydia West), the closeted Ritchie soon loses his virginity and, having discovered sex, he's well and truly hooked.

Soft-spoken Colin (Callum Scott Howells) has left his wheelchair-bound mother back home to begin a new life as an apprentice in a Saville Row store. He has to fight off his creepy old boss, but at the same time he is befriended by the store's senior salesman, Henry (Neil Patrick Harris). When Henry invites him home to have dinner and meet Pablo, his boyfriend of some 30 years, we actually see tears in Colin's eyes. This happy domestic lifestyle, which he never knew was possible, is exactly the life he would love to have.

The third young man is Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who is living with his ultra-religious Nigerian family. Having discovered his sexuality, they want to send him back to Nigeria. He makes a dramatic (and hilarious) exit, and eventually ends up meeting Ritchie.

The way in which the three end up as flatmates seems quite organic in a London gay scene that is still small enough that everyone seemingly knows everyone else. Their apartment - which they also share with Jill and one of her hot gay friends, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), quickly becomes Party Central. Davies reminds us all too well of how outrageous, and how much fun, life really was back then.

As the years click by and the boys' new life seems to be a Nirvana, word starts to trickle through from America about a new disease that has been labeled the "gay cancer." This being the '80s, anything concerning the LGBTQ community is rarely covered in the media — but as the disease starts being diagnosed in the UK, the news gets out.

Right from the start, any mention of HIV, and then AIDS, is full of rampant homophobia and hate mongering. A lot of this is the result of sheer ignorance, but much of it festers thanks to religious intolerance.

When even Ritchie and his group start becoming aware of the epidemic, they choose denial — as so many of us did back then. It is only Jill who grasps the potential fatality of it all, and chooses to learn whatever she can in order to help educate her reluctant gay friends.

As sad as this pandemic became (and as angry and scared as it made us all), there is something very comforting in seeing and hearing Davies's words. Much of what has been written about AIDS has been by heterosexuals; now, for once, our story is being told by one of our own.

No spoilers here, but as the boys' fates are now out of their own hands, "It's A Sin" reminds us sharply that if you were not able to be treated in London or another metropolitan city, then you were even worse off. Instead of medical staff with actual experience treating AIDS patients, or with a full array of the latest meds, you were placed in locked hospital wards and more or less left on your own.

Even worse was the way families took control of their dying children's lives whilst still harboring both ignorance and hostility toward their lifestyles. Shutting out a gay man's "logical family" (as opposed to his biological one) was the cruelest thing ever. There is a scene set in a church where a boyfriend has been banished from a funeral; all the friends who never wavered from the bedside of the dear departed are replaced by relatives who had been absent when he was alive. That, sadly, struck home so hard with me.

If you lived through this period and survived it, then this TV series will hit you particularly hard — but you still need to see it. But Davies also wrote this series for the queer men born after this time. As we rarely get our history re-told with such accuracy, and with such sheer compassion and love, this series is unmissable for all in our community.

We can relate to these boys' story, as not only did we also lack any gay role models, but as survivors of the epidemic we were forced to become our own role models and grow up much quicker than we had planned.

Blessed with sublime acting throughout — which is helped, no doubt, from Davies having written such well-rounded characters — "It's A Sin" is bound to sweep come awards season. We came away, still sobbing, remembering how young men had such a zest for living and enjoyed it to the full before their physical lives were cut short.

If Davies has planted any sort of message in this story, it is that we should all take full advantage of how glorious life really is.

All five episodes of "It's A Sin" stream on HBO MAX starting Feb. 18

Roger Walker-Dack, a passionate cinephile, is a freelance writer, critic and broadcaster and the author/editor of three blogs. He divides his time between Miami Beach and Provincetown.