Serving up Soft Cell on the soundtrack, and a sea of small-town boys in stonewashed jeans, HBO Max’s era-spanning limited series It’s a Sin (★★★★☆) brings ’80s London roaring back to life. The ensemble dramedy from Queer As Folk creator Russell T. Davies endearingly evokes golden years of blissful partying for the college-age mates at its center. All the better for pulling the rug out from under them — and the audience — when a globally unwelcome guest arrives to spoil the party.
Episode one assembles our merry band of fresh faces, like some queer super-team plucked from villages all over the Kingdom. Cheeky lad Ritchie, played by queer British pop idol Olly Alexander, sets off from the Isle of Wight for school in London, leaving behind his conservative parents but not their grip on his self-esteem. Working-class Welshman Colin (an outstanding Callum Scott Howells) takes a position apprenticing for a predatory Savile Row tailor, while baby-stepping out of the closet. And British-Nigerian diva Roscoe (Amari Douglas) stages a daring escape from his suburban home, after his zealously Christian family tries to pray the gay away.
The trio wind up sharing a flat, along with Ritchie’s schoolmates Jill (Lydia West) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), and the entire lot appear ready to conquer the world. The series wastes no time, though, foreshadowing that the world will produce other plans. The first Sunday Times newspaper story describing a “mystery illness” appears casually in episode one. Hindsight casts a distressing pall over the young friends’ joy and naïveté, as they grow, learn, and lose a lot in the decade that follows.
An epic told in five acts — each 45-minute installment focuses on a different year between 1981 and 1991 — It’s a Sin mines the crew’s youthful innocence and ignorance for mordant humor and potent suspense. Ritchie chuckling as he blithely tosses the condoms his dad gave him into the English Channel is no subtle stroke, but it’s an effective reflection of a pre-AIDS mentality towards sex. And despite the show’s serious intentions to drive home sad, brutal truths about visiting hospitals and burying friends, it also strives to maintain a sex-positive message that shames no one for taking pleasure in being young and free.
The gang isn’t portrayed as complete angels — except for sweet Colin — but it’s the disease that emerges as the show’s villain. The homophobia and stigma heaped on their community is what burdens these characters, not their sexuality. Again, the storytelling is none too subtle in staging their battles or characterizing their enemies, but the production succeeds by conveying all the emotion and information we need to understand the mysteries of this mystery illness.
Given star billing, Years & Years singer Alexander takes Ritchie on a fascinating voyage from shyly claiming his bisexuality, to enthusiastically embracing his attraction to men, then later vehemently denying the cold reality all around him. But West’s warm, heart-wrenching performance as Jill, witness to a plague, truly anchors the show from beginning to end. Through her eyes, we see the story of pandemic denial that’s still being told, rewritten and resold for a new virus.
And we also mark the deadly toll of the government’s inaction. In its cleverest jab, It’s a Sin, which offers scant mention of Margaret Thatcher, does finally grant the Iron Lady one appearance: just the back of her as she strides unconcerned in the opposite direction.
It’s a Sin debuts all five episodes on Thursday, Feb. 18 on HBO Max. Visit www.hbo.com.
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