Review by James McCleary
Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), aged eighteen, moves out of home and straight to London, where he takes up residence with four friends in a dingy flat called The Pink Palace. For most of his life, Ritchie has remained closeted in fear of his tough father (Shaun Dooley) and traditionalist mother (Keeley Hawes), but in London, Ritchie is freely, prolifically gay, as are all of his housemates bar Jill (Lydia West), his endearingly outgoing best friend. By the twenty minute mark of the first episode, The Pink Palace has become a hub for London’s queer night scene, an endless party wherein it becomes quite literally impossible to walk from room to room without blundering into the middle of someone’s wildest sexual fantasies. For Ritchie and his friends, these next few years are set to be the best, most liberating years of their young lives. And then they start to die, because this is 1981 and the Aids pandemic is on the rise.
In an op-ed for The Guardian, writer Russell T Davies writes that: “the stigma and fear of Aids was so great that a family could go through the funeral, the wake and then decades of mourning without saying what really happened.” His aim with It’s A Sin, then, is to shine a light on those who even in death have had their lives denied. To that end, Davies has constructed an elaborate, often terrifying tragedy spanning a decade wherein the gay men of London lost every battle, suffered every possible humiliation, and more often than not died alone out of shame and the dread of judgement.
Essential to this approach is the show’s laser focus on the queer perspective. With the exception of Jill, who stands as a beautifully consistent ally played to perfection by Lydia West without ever trying to steal the spotlight, all of the characters who we follow identify as LGBT+. The heterosexual gaze on Aids is largely sidelined except when antagonistic, as is the case with the doctors, government officials, and law enforcement whom the residents of The Pink Palace must face. Consequently, the feelings of isolation and loneliness are truly, devastatingly palpable throughout. As our lovable protagonists start to get sick and even pass away, the survivors are left with fewer and fewer pillars of support in their fight against the unknowably large society that loathes them, even coming to shut out one other in fear of their own possible toxicity.
Though Davies’ unmatched ability to create the most imperfectly human of heroes is the backbone of It’s A Sin’s emotional power, the work of director Paul Hoar and composer Murray Gold are not to be overlooked. Their most effective trick is the deployment of musical montages to transform the story of five people into a fully realised world. Early in the series, elaborate sequences of Ritchie’s sexual awakening and gradually mounting career make for exciting, giddily victorious achievements, which become increasingly corrupted as the looming shadow of Aids begins to infect every corner of his world. One particular beat, wherein a montage cuts away into total silence for a pivotal twist, is among the most harrowing statements I’ve seen on television in quite some time. The show will never permit you to love the characters for long without reminding you what kind of story this is; one where their own people would like nothing more than to see each and every one of them dead and buried. This culminates in one of the most audacious, unrelenting finales in recent television history. Scaling back the spectacle, score, and the affable character beats, the last hour of It’s A Sin takes the shape of several long, agonisingly unfair scenes where events set in motion from the first minutes of the pilot finally collide, and the ultimate evil that had always been holding Ritchie and his friends back from true queer liberation takes hold.
You’ll laugh and you’ll cry; those are truths I am as confident in as anything in the world, but if It’s A Sin can linger in your mind for as long as it has in mine, it is safe to say that Davies’ vision for bringing the repressed, quietly suffering victims of the Aids pandemic to the forefront is nothing short of a devastating triumph.