clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It’s a Sin finds the joy the AIDS crisis took away

It’s a Sin shows how friendship is the bridge to queer survival.

The cast of HBO’s It’s a Sin.
Ben Blackall/HBO Max
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

AIDS will kill you. I was taught this in grade school as part of a curriculum that used extreme fear as sex education. I grew up terrified, thinking gay sex meant death. And as a teen who knew he was flagrantly gay, I remember rationalizing the ways I could still lead a happy life (“just mouth stuff and porn”) without dying from having sex with men.

Teenage me was a fantastic idiot.

But the infuriating thing about this educational approach, and something I became angrier and angrier about as I got older, is that I eventually realized the people I was supposed to trust — whose advice I was supposed to listen to as a malleable youth — always talked about the death and terror of the AIDS crisis but never once discussed the lives of the gay men who were dying. Several hours spent on death, and not even one second about who they were. I wasn’t supposed to even be curious about the intricacies of those lives as their obituaries, riddled with jargon and euphemisms, piled up in newspapers across the country.

Talking about and fully memorializing the lives of these men was tricky, because doing so required people to admit that they were just as human as everyone else, that many of them had absolutely joyful lives and were able to find people like them who loved them back, even when the world frowned upon it.

After being steeped for so long in so much sadness and shame, it can feel audacious to acknowledge that happiness and love and joy still existed during the AIDS crisis, and that they were just as important as the fear and death.

That rare, audacious acknowledgment is integral to It’s a Sin, a moving, five-part coming-of-age miniseries from screenwriter Russell T. Davies (Queer as Folk) that premieres February 18 on HBO Max. Davies places equal emphasis on the joy and pain, declaring that we can’t possibly fathom the immensity of what the AIDS crisis destroyed if we ignore the happiness and love that gay men created for themselves.

Over the course of the series, death finds its way into our protagonists’ lives but does not stop them from falling in love or falling out of it, from escaping the crisis and being pulled back in, from finding friendships even as their friends disappear. The men at the center of this story must also come to terms with the inexplicable luck of surviving. And through it all, Davies reminds us that although the AIDS crisis took so much, its victims did not live — and did not die — lonely.

It’s a Sin is about remembering the joy before the crisis

Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer in It’s a Sin.
Courtesy of HBO Max

It’s a Sin begins in 1981 in London, right before there’s anything to worry about — it’s all hope and opportunity, especially for the show’s young gay protagonists. Ritchie (Olly Alexander), itching to get away from his parents, has just started college. Roscoe’s (Omari Douglas) situation is a little more serious, as his parents are Christian conservatives who have threatened to send him back to Nigeria to save him from his gayness. And Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is a shy young man from Wales who’s doing an apprenticeship with a London tailor.

The only thing they have in common is that they’re all gay. And even then, they’re at different starting points of their gay lives. Ritchie is eager to start dating men. Roscoe is more independent, with no family or university to fall back on. Colin is seemingly still in the closet and renting a room in a local family’s home.

Whatever they’re looking for — freedom, friendship, love, growth — they’re hoping to find it in London. And maybe it’s due to fate or the inevitable intimacy of gay friendships (or a little of both), but it’s only a matter of time before these three men all find themselves in each other’s lives and, eventually, living together.

It’s a Sin’s strongest moments, in its early episodes, tap into the excitement and how young life brims with optimism and possibility.

The miniseries, aided by a sugar-sweet soundtrack full of disco and ’80s bops, weaves a breathtaking fantasy about the expansiveness of youth. Nothing is decided yet. Even disappointment still feels fresh. Every night feels like it could be magic, as though it should end by dancing with your friends, arms draped on each other’s shoulders, necks resting in the crooks of elbows. Everyone’s smiling and laughing, even though you can’t hear each other over an absolutely perfect song. My 20s didn’t resemble that, I don’t think. Yet somehow, I found myself nostalgic for moving to London, kissing boys, and attending university.

And it just hurts so much to watch, knowing what’s in store for these young men and knowing they’ll never experience this kind of joy again with the same people.

The series’ five episodes — each one’s about an hour long — largely unfold in chronological order, sometimes leapfrogging a year or two, to eventually end in the early ’90s. This means that in every moment of every year we see onscreen, we know more than our heroes do about the horror that’s started to befall them, and the horror that is still to come. When one of the characters shrugs off an article in the paper about a mysterious cancer, it puts viewers in an emotionally helpless situation, like watching someone turn their back to a shark.

Our helplessness continues as Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin deny and rationalize the fear away. First, they suggest it’s a conspiracy against sexual revolution and gay rights victories. Then they say AIDS is something that only happens to Americans. It could never happen to them and their friends. It’s just a cough that will eventually go away.

All this time, the audience knows better.

The effect is devastating and crushing, because for as good as It’s a Sin is at depicting excitement and joy, it’s equally adept at showing the cruel randomness of the disease. There’s no rhyme or reason as to which characters contract AIDS and which ones don’t. Dumb luck comes with inescapable survivor’s guilt. The only constant is the inevitability of death once you contract it. When AZT, the first effective anti-HIV drug, is approved for use in 1987, some of the characters on the show have already died, years earlier.

That said, the series doesn’t strive to present a very specific historical retelling — it’s more of a period piece.

A comparison that may come to mind, due to subject matter and time frame, is The Normal Heart, and how the late Larry Kramer willed his grief and anger into a 1985 play (which was revived on Broadway in 2011 and adapted into a television production in 2014) about living in New York City during the same epidemic. The Normal Heart has always felt more like a history lesson to me, a violent warning that we owe it to the dead to never allow something like the AIDS crisis to repeat itself. The Normal Heart isn’t concerned with ensuring that its audience roots for its characters so much as it is with showing the gruesomeness of the disease and the politics that allowed it to spread so far and wide.

It’s a Sin does the opposite, daring its audience to fall in love with each of its protagonists and then demanding that we worry for them. The political injustices (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s ineptness, the British government’s idleness) come second after Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin’s heartbreaks, triumphs, and relationships. How much you feel for this drama will hinge on how deeply you forge a connection with them; I found myself wanting to see more and more of Howells’s Colin, whom the actor imbues with dignity and vulnerability.

It’s a Sin isn’t trying to jolt a reaction out of its audience the way The Normal Heart urgently needed to. For better or worse, the miniseries is sweeter and more sentimental. It’s not asking for action or apology, but for humanity to remember the joy that all the Ritchies, Roscoes, and Colins brought to this world, and to never let it be erased.

How chosen families are crucial to queer survival

Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in It’s a Sin.
Courtesy of HBO Max

The phrase “it’s a sin” allows whoever’s saying it in reference to homosexuality to condemn being gay without really providing a good reason why. The wrongness of being gay is the given. I heard this phrase frequently for years, until the tail end of Catholic grade school. And in this context, if something is wrong, it’s easier to rationalize a punishment.

Euphemisms found in newspaper obituaries of gay men similarly equated being gay with something bad, like “confirmed bachelor” to signal gayness, or “longtime companion” to signal that there was something shameful or wrong about plainly stating someone was gay (and thus unmarried). Those same obituaries simultaneously listed every family member the men were survived by, seemingly defining those men by the parts of their lives that weren’t connected to their homosexuality.

Hearing those statements and reading those obits could lead you to believe that gay men led the loneliest lives.

They didn’t, of course.

It’s just that the people describing these lives didn’t know, didn’t care, or didn’t want to acknowledge that gay men’s lives are full of friends, lovers, and maybe even adversaries who become our chosen family.

Those fiercely loyal companions, unmentioned in so many papers of record, are the people who alerted loved ones when someone got sick, who stayed through the night to hold a dying friend’s hand, who carried the burden of explanation when someone died. They’re the people who never allowed us to forget the lives stolen by the AIDS crisis.

It’s a Sin is a thank-you to all of them.

The throughline of Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin’s friendship is Jill (Lydia West), who introduces them to one another in London in 1981. The character is modeled after the real Jill Nadler, a friend of Davies. Nadler took care of her friends by cooking meals, buying them groceries, and keeping them company in the hospital. Her fictional counterpart does the same, while stamping out the stigma and shame that gnaw at the young men. She’s determined to let them know they’re deserving of love, that AIDS is not a punishment. She couldn’t save them all, but she could save them from dying alone.

It’s a Sin showcases how the families gay men and queer people choose to create allow us to unapologetically live lives that society would otherwise erase. LGBTQ people don’t often get to write our own stories. Queer survival in the ’80s, ’90s, and even today is a resistance to what is prescribed — you know, all that sin stuff — and the courage to dream of something better. And though it might not look like one on the surface, that is its own special kind of love story.

All five episodes of It’s a Sin will be available to stream on HBO Max beginning February 18.