Let’s Play Spin the Blame Bottle
It’s a Sin Gets A Lot Right—Until the End
by Hank Trout

Like every other HIV-positive gay man in the U.K. and the U.S., when I first heard that Russell T Davies (of Queer As Folk fame) was developing a new television series about the first decade of the AIDS pandemic in the U.K., to be shown on the U.K.’s Channel 4 and on HBO MAX in the U.S., I began eagerly anticipating the series. Having viewed and written about AFTER 82, the remarkable documentary by Steve Keeble and Ben Lord that employs long-term HIV/AIDS survivors telling their stories of the pandemic [A&U, July 2018], I knew that the pandemic had rampaged through London and Manchester just as viciously as through New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But the new series promised a fresh look at the first decade of the pandemic, a fictional depiction of the effect of the pandemic on the lives of young Londoners. I was excited!

Then, when I heard that the name of the series was to be It’s a Sin, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh.” My excitement slowly morphed into a vague dread, an anxious feeling that the series might devolve into moral posturing and recrimination. I found myself thinking, a la RuPaul, “Don’t fuck it up!”

Well, he didn’t fuck it up. Not entirely. Just enough to sour the series for me.
First, the good: The production design is flawless. Davies’ script races and rollicks through the first three episodes; we get to know the five or six main characters very well, very quickly. The acting is uniformly impeccable, not a false note anywhere. (Olly Alexander, as the ebullient Ritchie, is especially fine.) The music chosen (Kate Bush, The Pet Shop Boys, et al) perfectly recreates “the scene.” Davies also does a good job of capturing the characters’ enthusiasm for the new lives they are embarking on—Olly in drama school after rejecting law, Collin apprenticing at a Saville Row tailor, Roscoe escaping his homophobic Nigerian family. And finally, the script does an excellent job of conveying the confusion, fears, doubts and chaos that spread even more rapidly than the virus did. Davies is to be applauded also for not shying away from the painful images we all remember from the 1980s—KS lesions; food trays left on the floor outside hospital rooms; the emaciated bodies of the dying—even if they make us flinch in painful remembrance. In a word, the series felt very familiar.

Familiar also was the hedonism on full display in the series. Consider: the characters in It’s A Sin are all in their late teens, early twenties, which means they would have been about four or five when Parliament decriminalized homosexuality in 1967. Thus, these characters are truly the vanguard of the gay sexual liberation in the U.K. I find it easy to understand their life-affirming hedonism. Been there, done that, wrote smut about it!

I came out in 1974; my initial stomping ground was Chicago, Illinois. The seventies were quite a heady, hedonistic time, with queer folk asserting their rights and spearheading the sexual liberation of the decade. And I was gleefully swept up in the revelry. The scenes of Olly and his friends carousing in the bars could have been pulled from my own memories. Many are the nights I spent cruising Touche, the leather bar on North Lincoln; leaving at 2:00 a.m. to head to Carole’s Speakeasy to dance my ass off until 4:00 a.m.; then wandering through the maze of anonymous sex at the Bijou Theater next door to Carole’s; followed by breakfast and eye-opening Bloody Mary’s and plans for the next night’s debauchery. So I applaud Davies for the accuracy and the enthusiasm of those episodes.

Lydia West as Jill Baxter and Keeley Hawes as Valerie Tozer. Photo by Ben Blackall/HBO Max

But just as our world crashed and burned around us beginning in1981, so too It’s a Sin crashes and burns toward the end. The script veers from lively, lived-in conversations into hard-to-bear speechifying. For instance, I just don’t buy Ritchie’s mea culpa breakdown over his guilt for having continued to have anonymous sex after he was diagnosed with HIV. That scene felt like something that Davies tacked on because he thought he ought to (after all, It’s a Sin, right?). Recrimination and blame become the order of the day.

Even worse for me is the ending of Episode 5, when Jill, Ritchie’s college friend who has tried to be a cautionary ally, turns her anger on Ritchie’s mother, who neglected to tell Ritchie’s friends about his death. Jill harangues Ritchie’s grieving mother—“You killed him! You killed all of them!” I understand that anger. I share that anger. I have dealt with many shitty parents and family members of friends who died—the ones who swept into their dead son’s apartment and threw out anything that might indicate he was gay; the ones who swore at me and hung up the phone when I called to tell them of their son’s demise; the parents who refused to claim the ashes of their cremated child. So Jill’s anger is, again, familiar. But never once would I (or anyone I know) have screamed and yelled at a grieving mother, blaming her for her son’s death. For me, that scene is so false it borders on parody.
I wanted so much to like this series more than I did. But I refuse to play Davies’ version of Spin the Blame Bottle.

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick.