It’s a Sin
Written and created by Russell T Davies
Directed by Peter Hoar

Reporting by Bruce Ward

At one point during the British mini-series, It’s a Sin, a young gay man, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, asks: “I have a friend who said that injecting battery acid prevented him from getting AIDS. Is that true?”

If the question of injecting battery acid rings a bell (bleach, anyone?), it is not unintentional. While there are, of course, huge differences between the early years of the AIDS pandemic and our current pandemic of COVID-19, the similarities are clear: the desperation to find cures, the uncertainty and fear of contagion, the focus on social behavior and PPEs, and both the overreaction of the public at large, and the lack of action by the government.

Writer/creator Russell T Davies, who also helmed the original UK series, Queer As Folk, is too nuanced a writer to hit us over the head with these comparisons. He and director Peter Hoar allow the viewers to draw our own inferences, dependent upon our experience and knowledge: through a half-seen visual, a whispered conversation, a lesion faintly glimpsed, a scrawled message on a protest sign.

It’s a Sin, a five-part mini-series that premiered to great acclaim (and massive ratings) in the U.K. in January, premieres in the U.S. on February 18, on HBO Max.

The series follows the lives of a group of young gay men and their friends and families, during the early years of the AIDS pandemic, starting in 1981, as the young friends each arrive in London to pursue their dreams of career and romance, and to explore a new-found freedom in their sexual expression. Part Five ends in 1991, as the epidemic has irrevocably seeped into their lives.

While drawing comparisons between the two pandemics is by no means the focus of this powerful series, those of us who lived through that dark era cannot help but notice the two most profound differences between that pandemic and this one: stigma and homophobia.

At a time when AIDS (even before the virus was discovered and named HTLV-III), was considered a gay disease, the stigma towards those with the “gay plague” encompassed all gay men, as well. The difference between the early years of AIDS and COVID-19 couldn’t be starker: when a virus is seen to affect everyone, then everyone is concerned.

For those of us who lived during that time, and survived, It’s a Sin may be emotionally triggering. The production gets the details right, and they bring us back: the music, the political atmosphere, the fear. But, because such care is taken in the creation of its characters, the ultimate effect will be, for some, cathartic. It was for me.

With time comes distance. And though there have been a myriad of films and TV series that have explored the early years of the AIDS pandemic, some to great effect, it has been a while since I have seen a production that has so eloquently captured the exuberance and hopefulness of youth, only to see that hope dashed, altered, or challenged, so dramatically.

Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer and Lydia West as Jill Baxter. Photograph by Russ Ferguson/HBO Max

The advantage of presenting itself as a series (and, in just five hours, an impressively economical one), is that events are allowed to unwrap slowly. We view these events through the eyes of the characters as they are happening.

Witness this exchange, in episode one, depicting early denial:

“You can’t have a gay flu.”“My friend in San Francisco says it’s a plague.” “Don’t be ridiculous. That would be all over the news.“

And, because the series takes great care in the development of its characters, the viewer cares about these people. We identify with them, and we are on the journey with them as information emerges, and then changes, and as the reality begins to hit closer to home.

Home, in fact, is the very essence of this series, in all of its meanings. And like Longtime Companion, It’s a Sin focuses on the bonds among friends, and how, during crisis, those bonds of “chosen families” grow stronger.

What sets It’s a Sin apart from other films and series of its kind, is the attention it gives to creating fully etched human beings, in all of their complexities.

Human beings are neither wholly black-or-white, and Davies is not afraid to explore the gray areas—of not just the young protagonists, but of others in their circle, most notably their parents. By presenting the humanity of its characters, with all of their flaws and fears and sometimes seemingly unforgivable behavior, the series allows the viewer to identify with characters that could easily be written off as one-dimensional.

As expected of the creator of Queer As Folk, Davies also does not shy away from honest depictions of sexuality. And the humor (of which there is plenty) is often both surprising and truthful, and always stems from the honesty of the characterizations.

Omari Douglas as Roscoe Babatunde, Lydia West as Jill Baxter, David Carlyle as Gregory Finch, Calum Scott Howells as Colin Morris-Jones, and Nathaniel Curtis as Ash Mukherjee. Photograph by Ben Blackall/HBO Max

But where this series succeeds the most is in capturing the interconnectedness among us all, and in presenting a view of “family”, with all its messy and beautiful connotations, whether that family is of blood, or of a chosen family of friends who love and support each other, through both joyful and tragic times.

Whether you were around during the early years of the epidemic, grew up during a time when AIDS became a manageable disease, or are fortunate to be living in the era of PrEP and U=U (Undetectable = Untransmittable), It’s a Sin is sure to spur discussion and debate, and that in itself is invaluable. The series is a powerful addition to the pantheon of AIDS stories that must continue to be told.

Bruce Ward is A&U’s Drama Editor, and he has been writing about the AIDS epidemic since its inception. His plays, Lazarus Syndrome and Decade: Life in the ’80s, have been produced throughout the U.S. Bruce was the original Director of the CDC National AIDS Hotline, and he was honored by POZ magazine as one of 2015’s POZ 100. You may follow him at: bdwardbos.wordpress.com.