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The Joy, Heartbreak, and Oversights of It’s a Sin

  • Culture

By Louisa Johnson, MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries

It’s a Sin, Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 hit is a heartbreaking tale of the global HIV and AIDS epidemic and its devastating effects on gay urban life from 1981 to 1991. Originally rejected by BBC One, ITV, and even Channel 4 on its first proposal, this five-episode series has since broken viewing records, accumulating 6.5 million views within the first couple of weeks of its launch, becoming All 4’s third biggest series to date and its most binge-watched new series ever.

The show centres around Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a closeted young man who moves to London from the Isle of Wight and becomes an actor; Roscoe (Omari Douglas) who has relocated to London to escape his Nigerian family’s religion-induced homophobia; and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) a shy Welshman who works in a luxury menswear shop in the city. The story begins with following Ritchie on his gay sexual awakening. As his own connections grow, so does our focal network of characters. We meet Jill (Lydia West), soon-to-be Ritchie’s best friend, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Ritchie’s on-again, off-again sexual partner, and Gregory (David Carlyle), a Scottish bus conductor who befriends the young crowd.

While it starts as just a menacing dark cloud hovering in the distance, the threat of AIDS slowly creeps into their lives, eventually building to a storm which brings their wild lifestyle of partying and carefree casual sex to a halt. The illness is first dismissed as a conspiracy, and is framed as a solely American issue. However, as more queer characters quietly “go home” and disappear from the city, it becomes apparent that AIDS is having a far more widespread, sinister effect than initially understood.

The brilliant writing, acting, and storyline make It’s a Sin a masterful tear-jerker. However, as much as it depicts the overwhelming tragedy of the AIDS crisis and the culture of shame and repression in which it flourished, It’s a Sin also encapsulates the beautiful and unapologetic euphoria of queer youth. 

Despite being a definite triumph overall, It’s a Sin is not without flaws. For example, some have criticised the show for gradually losing its ensemble approach to centre on its white protagonist, Ritchie. This narrative sidelining of queer characters of colour is unfortunately consistent with the societal marginalisation of BIPOC voices in LGBTQI+ spaces. Equally frustrating is Davies’ handling of his Black female character, Jill. Jill is somewhat devoid of any real personhood — her existence is reduced to being the nurse and carer for the infected men around her. She is also imbued with superhuman powers of patience, which become unrealistic in the face of persistent prejudice from Ritchie’s family.

Many have also complained about Ritchie’s commitment to Thatcherite politics which seems at odds with his sexual identity. However, Ritchie’s Toryism, as well as his racially ignorant comments to Ash, construct an unfortunately realistic portrayal of some white queer men in the community. Though these moments should have been explored or challenged by the other characters in greater depth, their inclusion act as a necessary reminder that queerness does not guarantee an informed, liberal outlook. 

Finally, one glaring flaw is the absence of female AIDS victims. For Juno Roche on iNews, this is a large oversight given that around the world over half of the people living with HIV are women. Perhaps this gap feeds into yet another omission in the narrative: the lack of bisexual representation. Although the stories that are included were well-written, there was certainly room to widen the show’s perspective by including more sexual and gender fluidity within the narrative.

Overall, It’s a Sin is an absolute must-see. The balance of joy and heartbreak allows for a gripping tale which accurately captures the experiences of young gay men during the HIV and AIDS epidemic. In the midst of a new pandemic, perhaps these stories can imbue cisgender, straight audiences with a renewed sense of empathy for the LGBTQI+ community’s tragic history with contagious viruses.

Photo caption: The main characters of It’s a Sin (right to left): Ash, Colin, Roscoe, Jill and Ritchie (Credit: Ben Blackall, HBO Max).

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