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How ‘It’s a Sin’ Finds New Perspective in Familiar Territory

Russell T. Davies’s latest covers the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, but only through, as he puts it, “ordinary, ordinary people”

HBO/Ringer illustration

For Russell T. Davies, It’s a Sin is both familiar and a first. Throughout his career, the Welsh screenwriter has made a point of centering queer characters and communities, even before such stories joined the mainstream. His 1999 breakout Queer As Folk became a lightning rod for its pre-Skins take on teen sexuality; the companion shows Cucumber and Banana, which first aired in 2015, are both a wide-ranging survey of Manchester’s storied gay scene and a specific study in male midlife crisis. And while sexuality may not be the central subject of Years and Years, Davies’s 2019 series that managed to out-dystopia Black Mirror, it’s part of a tapestry that also includes extremism, immigration, and the threat of nuclear war. Yet It’s a Sin, which lands stateside this Thursday on HBO Max after notching record ratings in the U.K., covers a subject that Davies somehow hasn’t hit to this point: the AIDS crisis, a turning point in queer history that the 57-year-old scribe lived through in full.

Speaking from his hometown of Swansea, Davies uses another entry in his CV to explain his approach to It’s a Sin. “I wanted to strip this down to really, really ordinary people,” he says, contrasting his M.O. with a more American approach. “It’s more of a British point of view of drama, I think. The great difference between the two countries is the difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek. In Star Trek, they’re the military. They represent Earth when they go out and do good in the universe. The Doctor’s a complete loner, all of his own. No wage, no boss, no taxes.” Davies would know: He’s the showrunner responsible for reviving the sci-fi staple in its current form, starting with Christopher Eccleston as the title character in 2005.

Per Davies’s mandate, the protagonists of It’s a Sin are neither movement leaders nor anonymous victims. They’re the tight-knit inhabitants of a London flat nicknamed the Pink Palace. Davies’s closest proxy is Ritchie, a young actor played by pop star Olly Alexander of the trio Years and Years (no relation to Davies’s show), though aspiring tailor Colin (Callum Scott Howells) also grew up in Wales. Instead of joining the fight against AIDS and the homophobia and civil indifference that came with it, Ritchie’s first instinct is to brush it off as a false alarm: “They want to scare us and stop us having sex and make us boring because they can’t get laid,” he scoffs.

His roommate and college friend Jill (Lydia West) gets involved, staffing a hotline and doing research on the side, but most of their clique tends toward Ritchie’s point of view. (Jill is based on Davies’s real-life friend Jill Nader, though he notes Nader is far more “camp and hilarious” than the TV version: “You have to tone people down when you put them on screen.”) After a lifetime in the closet, these young men finally have a chance to sleep with who they want to sleep with, party where they want to party, be who they want to be. Why should they stop now? But over five episodes that span the 1980s, Ritchie and his friends learn the hard way that AIDS can’t be ignored.

It’s a Sin earns its place in what’s already a vast canon of AIDS-related art, much of which Davies revisited in preparation for penning his scripts: plays like Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and more recently, The Inheritance; films like BPM and Holding the Man; books like The Line of Beauty. (One exception was the FX show Pose, which Davies saved for after he completed the writing process; once he caught up, he promptly “fell in love” with Billy Porter.) Davies likens this informal dialogue with his artistic predecessors to “one of those quarterly dances where everyone swaps partners,” but still feels It’s a Sin offers a unique angle in its focus on day-to-day gay life.

“It’s very hard to talk about the pieces of work without sounding like you’re criticizing them,” Davies says. The gaps he saw in AIDS-focused art nonetheless informed his focus nationally, tonally, and thematically. “I loved The Inheritance; I ended up sobbing on the pavement with everyone else. And yet from a British point of view, I was amused that three of the characters are billionaires. You’d never have that in a British drama. And so, that interested me enough to think, well, that’s the territory where British drama goes.” Davies also highlights a less iconic example of storytelling around AIDS: British soap operas, which tend to be more issue-driven and working-class-centric than American ones. Many included story lines about HIV in the late ’80s and early ’90s, though they tended to emphasize the disease’s universality and downplay its specific impact on gay men.

That Britishness makes It’s a Sin somewhat novel for Americans accustomed to AIDS histories centered on the Reagan administration and downtown New York. The series’ setting affects its substance, touching on the shortcomings of the National Health Service and bigoted laws like the notorious Section 28, which remained in effect until 2003. (There’s even a very brief, faceless cameo by the Iron Lady herself, a direct echo of The Line of Beauty.) But it also manifests in Davies’s emphasis on the ordinary. “I was very keen, in creating these characters, that none of them was ever going to be important,” he explains. When someone dies tragically young, he points out, it’s common to lament their lost potential. “I don’t think that matters. I think what matters is that they were good to their friends, and you remember them with a smile on your face, and they were good to their mum. That’s an important life well lived on this earth.”

The AIDS crisis lingers in our collective memory, leaving a negative space where an entire generation of queer elders ought to be. It’s nevertheless newly relevant in the context of a recent public health event that continues to expose and feed off of massive social inequality. “The capacity of our governments to fail us when there’s a national crisis is identical,” Davies observes. “The coronavirus is talked about and more visible than HIV was, but actually in Britain, it’s the same. The people who get forgotten are at the edges of society.” Watching It’s a Sin, which was shot before the pandemic but edited during lockdown, certain scenes look queasily familiar: Jill rubbing down a countertop because it’s not yet clear how the virus spreads; Ritchie buying into conspiracy theories; another character struggling to get a test, let alone a diagnosis, let alone treatment.

The tone of It’s a Sin is often joyful and light, but the cumulative effect is a queasy kind of déjà vu. “It’s very easy now to say that the internet causes misinformation, but we were making it up way back there in the ’80s,” Davies says. “To be told in 1983 there’s a virus that only kills gay men—it still sounds extraordinary. I’ve got a whole drama out of it.”

Davies also admits to a slightly more selfish concern as the episodes came together: “I started thinking, who the fuck wants to watch a drama about a virus in the middle of a pandemic?” But his fears ultimately proved unfounded. The show’s success in the U.K. is a testament to Davies’s work but also to just how much the cultural landscape has changed in the time Davies has been working, in part because of his work. We’re now twice as removed from the premiere of Queer As Folk as Queer As Folk was from the height of the AIDS crisis. That distance shows in their respective receptions: Where Queer As Folk was considered niche and controversial, if massively influential, It’s a Sin is near-universally embraced—no caveats needed.

Which isn’t to say It’s a Sin shies away from its subject matter in the name of mass appeal. A common motif in Davies’s work is sexual frankness, depicting the particulars of queer life alongside its overall ethos. Queer As Folk introduced many viewers to the concept of rimming; the protagonist of Cucumber can’t bring himself to have penetrative sex. The sex scenes in It’s a Sin run the gamut from comic to tragic. Ritchie’s first collegiate hookup gets abruptly stopped when his partner notes he has some washing up to do; on his deathbed, one character gives a speech about the fun he had with random hookups and how little he regrets it, forcing his mother to reckon with her son’s identity when she prefers to look away. “I personally believe that if you are investing in queerness, then you are looking at [characters’] sex life,” Davies says. “Not for the sake of visuals, not for the sake of nakedness, but [because] that’s when you’re exposed. That’s who you are. That’s when you’re making your choices.”

It’s a Sin is autobiographical in the loose sense, but the show’s most literal truths are less in the characters than in the ways they communicate. “I don’t think anyone says anything in this that I haven’t heard actually said to me by someone,” Davies says. That lived experience is palpable throughout the show, from the easy bonhomie of the Pink Palace’s makeshift household to the pathos of the inevitable deaths. The AIDS crisis may be long past its peak, but the raw emotions remain.