Premiered 22 January 2021
An unknown virus, misinformation and uncertainty about the future. No, we’re not talking about coronavirus for once. It’s A Sin, a new five-part miniseries on Channel 4, delicately tackles the HIV and AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, with the backdrop of queer London.
Created by Russell T Davies, who was also behind the 1999 series Queer as Folk, the show chronicles the lives of three gay men who set off from their hometowns to begin new lives at university. A seemingly light set-up, the story takes a turn for the worse as a deadly new virus is on the rise.
It’s A Sin opens in September 1981, with an outwardly perfect nuclear family sat around their dimly lit dining table, surrounded by retro lampshades and boldly printed curtains. We are introduced to 18-year-old Ritchie (Olly Alexander), the show’s protagonist, who is about to move to the big city: London.
His story really begins when he meets Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells). As the three young men navigate the capital’s gay scene and university life in general, they are introduced to a mysterious disease that seems to disproportionately affect gay men.
In the early 1980s, reports of severe immune deficiency began to rise around the world. Scientists were dumbfounded by this new disease, which worked by attacking the body’s immune system, weakening its ability to fight infections.
Navigating an increasingly homophobic society, Ritchie initially responds to this disease with denial. “I don’t believe it, I don’t believe a word of it,” he says in a monologue of denial, while the camera pans to him on the dancefloor of Heaven, the iconic gay club in London. As the shadow of AIDS closes in, Ritchie and his friends tackle misinformation and stigma.
The miniseries scarily mirrors our current reality. Much like today’s coronavirus, there were many rumours circulating about HIV and AIDS, due to fear of the unknown. One of the most common misconceptions was that only gay people could contract the virus – it was even labelled the “gay plague”. This stigma cast a large shadow on the gay community, meaning that many people suffered in silence until their last days of life, as shown in It’s A Sin.
It’s A Sin presents a candid authenticity that could only be achieved by someone who has lived through and experienced the events themselves, which Russell T Davies did. The soundtrack especially gets an honourable mention – it features some of the biggest smash hits of the decade, including Blondie, Wham! and Queen. Paired with the impeccable acting of the young and upcoming actors, many of whom weren’t even alive in the 1980s, we are transported back in time.
Davies preserves the joyous scenes of 1980s London, all while sensitively portraying the realities of the disease’s devastating progression. We see how HIV and AIDS affected the individuals themselves, their social circle and even families who discover their son’s sexuality through the most haunting circumstances. No spoilers, but keep your box of tissues close to hand. HIV and AIDS have claimed the lives of millions of people across the world – and this fictional telling is no exception.
HIV now has a more promising mortality rate with the development of preventative drugs, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and antiretroviral therapy. But living with HIV or AIDS is still some people’s reality, especially those living in low-income countries where therapies are hard to access.
It’s A Sin serves as a perfect reminder of the not-so-distant-past that burdened thousands of gay men. It is a poignant love letter to all those lost during the AIDS epidemic, and to those allies who unconditionally supported them.
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