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‘It’s a Sin’: Not Just Another Retelling of the AIDS Crisis


R E V I E W – S H O W


Raya Mehnaz


When it came out that Russell T Davies would make a show about the AIDS epidemic against the backdrop of 1980s London, there was a level of apprehension that laces through any historical dramatisation, especially about a topic as heavy as AIDS. Fortunately, It’s a Sin graced Channel 4 at a time when a retelling of the mass paranoia and panic of a mysterious illness would be met with a lot more reception than it would have otherwise. 

In short, Davies’ It’s a Sin follows a group of queer flatmates and navigates life at the peak of the AIDS crisis. That, however, is just a one-line pitch of the story. It’s a Sin is so much more than that. It is about Ritchie Tozer, Roscoe Babatunde, Colin Morris-Jones, Jill Baxter, and Ash Mukherjee, who arrive in London at the start of the 1980s and eventually find freedom, love, and community within themselves. It’s about the deep-rooted homophobia that was still present in every household in Britain, and how a virus that only seemed to be present amongst the gay male population fed into that prejudice. It’s about the Pink Palace with its frayed wallpaper and chorus of La that works both as a greeting and a nod of solidarity. It is about finally getting a place to experience sexual freedom when the act itself could be the reason behind their death.

It’s a Sin, at a first glance, would seem nothing more than a tribute to coming of age in the uninhibited decade of the 1980s, with its loud music — ranging from Kate Bush to The Pet Shop Boys — and polychrome clothing. It is also a show that is very predictable in its ending. Davies, in his dramatic artistry, lays down the crumbs of tragedy within the journeys of the characters. In a way, that’s fleeting but unquestionably noticeable.

It is seen from the very first episode, in which Colin’s good-natured colleague, Henry Coltrane (played by Neil Patrick Harris) and his partner of 30 years succumb to a mysterious illness that eats away at their lungs. Upon his visit, Henry tearfully asks Colin (played by Callum Scott Howells), “Was it the mold?” — trying to figure out if it was the mold that caused this illness. He dies before knowing it was AIDS.

The lack of information regarding the mechanics of AIDS shown in Henry’s case was not at all out of the ordinary. It was an era that was riddled with cries of disbelief and ignorance. Even when it was not, it was sensationalised in a way that condemned gay men for bringing HIV to life in the first place. It was portrayed in the way Gregory (played by David Carlyle) had to fill out an AIDS symptoms questionnaire that had a question asking him about bestiality, or how Ash (played by Nathaniel Curtis) was required to find and remove any books that “promoted homosexuality” at the library in response to the British government’s Section 28 law.

Understandably, Ritchie, Roscoe, Ash, and Colin ignored the implications of the virus. After all, this virus seemed to only attack sexually active gay men — thus affirming all the homophobia and all the hate thrown at them. It was easier for them to believe this virus never existed than to believe it existed solely to wipe them out.

It was only after a BBC public service announcement that it was even acknowledged that straight men and women could get infected as well. Yet, the announcement did nothing to help the internalised shame these men had to go through. From the beginning, the cruel climate of Britain did nothing but fuel the fire that homosexuality itself is wrong, and those who partake in it are inherently shameful. When someone did fall victim to the disease, they had to keep reiterating that they were not “dirty” or a “slut”, as the usual stereotypes went — otherwise, it would mean that they did bring it upon themselves. It would mean being homosexual was as shameful as society told them it was. This brilliant portrayal of intimacy in the background of sin proves how aptly named the show is.

The brilliance of It’s a Sin lies not only in its raw brutality that showed the wreck AIDS left in its wake, but in the things that were left unsaid. Even its most cruel episode, where the mother of an infected man receives an adorned box of feces, can’t compare to the horrors of the era. No amount of allusions to Section 28 can explain how gay men and women were alienated, often to the point of suicide. Neither can the brief moments of police brutality ever capture the broken bodies of real activists. Davies knew what to show and where to stop. This is understandable, considering Davies himself identifies as queer and had lived through the epidemic himself.

But this is not to say that this show does not have any blind spots. Foremost remains the lack of multidimensional female characters. Jill (played by Lydia West), who is the only female character of any importance, is reduced to a plot point that only exists to portray another version of affection and acceptance in contrast to the conditional love that exists within the families of Ritchie (played by Olly Alexander) and Roscoe (played by Omari Douglas). Whereas other characters are allowed a flaw or two, the show only allows Jill to embody traits of selflessness & empathy. Ash is very much written the same way, in which he is only there to show the softer and more compassionate queer character with no backstories or ambitions of his own. The lack of queer characters besides gay men is another point to be noted. The show does mention bisexuality, but only in passing. The lesbian and trans communities do not even have the privilege of being mentioned. It is unwarranted, considering these communities had also paid with their lives during the AIDS pandemic and subsequent movements.  

Despite its glaring blind spots, it needs to be repeated that this is no ordinary historical dramatisation. It’s a Sin is heartbreaking in its execution and not everyone makes it out alive. However, it is also a humane and sincere look into life in all its fun and campy glory. It’s a Sin in that way resembles life, where there is unspeakable pain in one moment, unadulterated joy the next. Its joy is not marred by its tragedy.

As said best by Ritchie in the last episode, “That’s what people will forget, that it was so much fun.”

 


Raya likes to critically analyse anything regarding pop culture, and when she’s not doing that, she likes to live life dangerously — one House MD episode at a time.

 

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