The Sad Déjà Vu of It’s a Sin

The beautifully made HBO/Channel 4 miniseries about gay men in 1980s London can’t help but show the way that tragedies become tropes.

A scene from 'It's a Sin'
"It’s a Sin" tackles AIDS so straightforwardly and so insistently, it feels intended as a corrective. (Ben Blackall / BBC / HBO)

Updated at 3:41 p.m. on March 11, 2021.

When Russell T. Davies created Queer as Folk, the groundbreaking 1999 U.K. drama series about gay men in Manchester, he had one rule.* The show would depict the vivacity of urban queer life without shying away from its darker side—but HIV/AIDS wouldn’t be part of that picture. New medicines had made it so that the virus, which had massacred gay men since about 1980, “was beginning to not be a death sentence,” Davies recently told The New Yorker. “And I was absolutely determined that we would stop being defined by an illness.”

Stop being defined. It’s easy to understand what he meant by that. Most of the mainstream English-language depictions of gay men up to that point—Rent, Philadelphia, The Normal Heart, Angels in America—had focused on AIDS. When minor gay characters popped up in the sitcoms and movies that straight America watched, many of the story lines involved the disease. Davies sought to free his characters from that lineage, and his show’s popularity demonstrated the power of doing so. Today, pop culture is more inclusive of queer characters than ever, and many of them are liberated in the manner that Davies sought. Although 38 million people worldwide have the disease, treatment and prevention allow many queer people in the U.S. and U.K. to live with less fear today than before.

Davies’s newest series, It’s a Sin, takes place in 1980s London and flips the philosophy he had for Queer as Folk. Writing from his experience as a young gay man in Margaret Thatcher’s U.K., Davies invents luminous, lovable young adults and then smites them. We watch, over five episodes, as AIDS evolves from rumor to devastating reality. We watch the stages of grief unfold among characters as if by some checklist. We watch as straight society—families, medical professionals, governments—stigmatizes and mistreats the victims. Since premiering on Channel 4 in January (and then being released stateside on HBO), this chronicle of tragedy has earned strong reviews and expectation-busting ratings.

It’s a Sin tackles AIDS so straightforwardly and so insistently, it feels intended as a corrective to the earlier corrective that Queer as Folk made: Here’s a jolt to a generation that might be forgetting the lessons of the HIV/AIDS crisis. After all, one of the realizations of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that the thought of a deadly, society-reshaping pathogen was totally foreign to most people—even though a different deadly, society-reshaping pathogen emerged not long ago and still changes lives around the globe. Davies’s series offers the simple yet potent reminder that history is not a Wikipedia page, but real people’s lives and deaths.

Watching the well-made and moving five episodes, I was also struck by a smothering sense of déjà vu—rooted in how inescapable the crisis’s legacy, and the virus’s ongoing reality, remains. The ’80s and ’90s AIDS canon was on my mind, but so were this millennium’s most conversation-starting pieces of gay fiction. Works like Matthew Lopez’s 2018 stage play, The Inheritance; Rebecca Makkai’s 2018 novel, The Great Believers; and the current FX drama Pose are similarly panoramic, historical looks at the disease. Davies has said that his previous TV shows about queer people (including Queer as Folk, whose American adaptation—by Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman—did include AIDS content) portrayed a link, inspired by the crisis, between gay love and death. Even recent queer classics that ignore the disease and defy the “bury your gays” trope—think Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name—obsess over the themes of fragility and fleetingness that animate It’s a Sin. Decade after decade, the most acclaimed takes on queerness suggest that a thriving gay life is an improbable thing—and turn that lesson into entertainment.

The entertainment value of It’s a Sin, for a while, lies simply in watching likable actors play likable people. Olly Alexander, the singer from the pop band Years & Years, plays Ritchie, a cocky aspiring actor who escapes a fusty suburban upbringing. Just as he achieves sexual liberation, he’s told he should zip back up for fear of death; his charming jack-o’-lantern grin goes a long way toward making his ensuing recklessness seem relatable. Callum Scott Howells is another standout as Colin, a Welsh hayseed who’s wonderstruck by city life. Omari Douglas’s Roscoe buzzes through various London social scenes as a spiky, eyeliner-wearing child of fundamentalist Christian Nigerian immigrants. Lydia West pours vats of charisma into Jill, the underwritten supportive friend, and Neil Patrick Harris is memorable as a dry-witted elder mentor, Henry.

The show’s five episodes are rich with texture, and the gang’s ambitions, flings, and catchphrases all come to feel like your own. Yet the engine of the plot is AIDS itself. It stalks stealthily in the beginning, then strikes peripheral figures, then inculcates fear and denial, and then moves in to kill beloved heroes. The characters who do not die end up having their narratives defined by the way they care for those who do. At one point, Ritchie asks for just a single night when the disease is not the topic of every conversation with friends. The truth, of course, is that there can be no escape for these characters. Dance and love and camaraderie come off as precious and fragile things, embattled by social and medical realities.

In this aspect, and in many others, It’s a Sin has a ritualistic feel, touching on all the catechisms of AIDS storytelling. Community-building, activism, shame and stigma, the particular cruelties of the disease: It’s a Sin hits eachs of these motifs with finesse, comedy, gentleness, and guts. The show is particularly canny about the way in which AIDS forced visibility for queerness. Meryl Streep’s Mormon-mom character in the 2003 HBO adaptation of Angels in America gets a number of analogues here: With each young man who confronts the disease comes a set of parents who must choose denial, acceptance, or rejection of their son’s sexuality. In the show’s narrative, in actual history, and so often in popular culture, death makes gay people seen.

Still from "It's a Sin"
It’s a Sin has a ritualistic feel, touching on all the catechisms of AIDS storytelling. (Ross Ferguson / BBC / HBO)

What really sets It’s a Sin apart in the genre of English-language AIDS epics is the Britishness of the show’s setting. Cosmopolitan ’80s London—with its old-world structures, architectural and social, housing new scenes of diverse self-expression—replaces the New York or San Francisco of so much AIDS fiction. In a recent column, the British journalist Gus Cairns writes that he recognized many of the show’s locations from his own life and was “concussed by the historical and emotional accuracy of this series.” Still, Davies is a talented-enough storyteller that very little of the show needs translating for a non-U.K. audience. The fact that the disease’s awful logic remains unchanged by its surroundings, in fact, adds to the feeling that the show is simply reinterpreting some ancient and sad tune.

The tune still teaches. It’s a Sin is often openly didactic, such as when Ritchie addresses the camera with a frenetic listing of reasons he doesn’t believe the virus is real. The monologue explains the psychological mindfuck that AIDS represented—and also happens to skewer modern denialism around COVID-19. In Britain, It’s a Sin’s popularity inspired a surge in people seeking HIV testing, and I’ve seen social-media posts from viewers saying they investigated the preventive drug PrEP because of the series. These outcomes show that the work of reaching new generations continues. So does the work of reaching the Black, brown, and non-Western populations most threatened by AIDS—though this series, which is diversely cast yet still white-centering, does not diligently pursue that work.

The rites of AIDS fiction have spiritual dimensions as well. They honor the dead and the survivors; they bear witness to the human toll of the disease. Many works like these deal in resurrection themes and aesthetics: Ghosts of victims swirl in tearful fantasy scenes from The Inheritance and the 1989 film Longtime Companion; supernatural visions are threaded throughout Angels in America; plot points about photography and art double as memorial in The Great Believers. For It’s a Sin, a simple and lovely flashback to the gang, healthy and happy, ends the series. The show also serves as an explicit hero’s tribute: The character Jill Baxter is based on a real-life woman named Jill Nalder, who assisted dying gay men in London thoughout the crisis. Nalder plays Baxter’s mom in the show.

Inevitably and naggingly, though, It’s a Sin’s mission of remembrance overlaps with the show’s need to hold an audience. Tragedy is the most reliable dramatic genre in history, and AIDS provides an all too suitable trove for the storytelling ingredients that Aristotle listed in Poetics. Wrenching as the deaths onscreen are, they are also sources of catharsis that resolve tension after a long struggle. The disease’s capriciousness ends up doling out tangy, ironic reversals, such as when a mostly chaste character meets his demise before the promiscuous ones do. All along, in scene after scene, characters and viewers keep watching for that thing that gives sense to the senseless: the identification of a fatal flaw, some error on the part of the protagonists—and their community—that explains their fate.

The cleverest part of Davies’s series is, in fact, the way that it works toward identifying the sin of its title. In a fiery conversation in the final episode, Jill blasts another character for callousness and homophobia—and argues that the entire AIDS crisis is a testament to the deadly power of shame, which pushed some people with the disease to do self-destructive things. A personal foible is thus blown up to be a society-wide failing. A sense of cause and effect snaps into place with a crude sort of clarity. Not coincidentally, this scene has turned out to be one of the most controversial things about the show. Critics have nicked it as too pat, too out-of-nowhere, and too condemnatory of individuals over institutions.

I too felt disoriented by this ending—but seeing a sympathetic character finally boil over into righteous anger also seemed useful. Jill’s angry words may oversimplify all that preceded them. But her flailing search for a message, a meaning, or an upshot is more the point of the scene. She is stewing with earned resentment, and resentment, as much as empathy or understanding, is the emotion that It’s a Sin stokes in viewers. That resentment is largely toward a disease, and toward a world that still fails that disease’s victims. But maybe it’s also toward the way that works like It’s a Sin transform a horrifying reality into genre. In a strange way, the genre’s persistence shows that achieving Davies’s old goal—for a disease not to define a people—is not a job popular culture alone can accomplish. It is not right to turn away from harsh truths, but it is also unjust that we cannot ever be free of them.

* This article previously misstated the setting of the U.K. version of Queer as Folk.