It's A Sin: but it tastes so good
Well folks - it's been a long while since our last review blog ... life, work, pandemics, etc ... But we're back and rounding out our STI JULY theme with a review that couldn't be confined to the character limits of our usual Instagram posts.
The AIDS story has been told and told and retold again but one of the more recent and memorable retelling's of the 1980's HIV/AIDS crisis comes in the miniseries 'It's a Sin' - a poignant, funny, dramatic, heartbreaking tale of a group of friends living in London through the best and worst parts of their lives - newfound queer liberation meets a pandemic that decimated a generation of gay men.
You'll laugh and ugly cry as we journey through the joys, trials and tribulations of this motley crew ... La!
So grab your popcorn and your tissues and join us as we travel back to the Pink Palace and share in the story of a couple of young, queer and fabulous friends.
Released last year during the height of lock-downs (and streaming service binge TV heaven) this 5 episode mini series was just what the doctor ordered. And let me tell you I smashed this one out back to back in one sitting because it's proved to be one of my all time favourite gay dramas.
Directed by Peter Hoar and created by Russel T. Davies (who gave us Years & Years, Queer as Folk and a fair bit of Dr Who amongst other things) It's a Sin tells the tale of 4 gay men and their female bestie as they navigate a transformative decade as young people in a world that's about to fall apart.
There’s the flamboyant Roscoe (Omari Douglas), who's gleefully navigating life outside his strict and homophobic Nigerian home.
The shy and endearing Colin (Callum Scott Howells) from Wales who is trying to branch into the British tailor industry.
The earnest, but gorgeous, Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), a university drama student who stumbles into the group following a fling.
The fun-loving Ritchie (Olly Alexander) from the Isle Of Wight who is, arguably, the protagonist of the whole shindig.
And none outdone by Jill (Lydia West), the only girl in the group, and something of a mother / guardian angel / Wendy to this gang of lost boys.
The show plots the lives of these friends as they share a flat (the Pink Palace) in London from 1980 onwards. Over the pursuing years as a new disease starts impacting their community, and then their household, we're taken on a heartbreaking journey of the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
There's a lot to love, and some stuff to judge, with the portrayal of this mini series. The most impressive task executed by Davies is that he gets us to love these characters in a measly 5 episodes ... fewer for some due to their untimely demise. Lets break down some of the techniques used to coerce us into love and heartache in such a short time span.
Like I said, 5 episodes, not a whole lot of time to build a world and characters that you're rapidly knocking off and allow your audience to build a relationship with them. Davies manages to achieve this overall and uses montage effectively to do this. A montage, for film purposes, is the technique of selecting, editing, and piecing together separate sections of film to form a continuous whole often backgrounded by music and/or voice-over to tie it to a theme.
Take the example of Ritchie who manages to steal focus in most of the montage scenes. Whether he's debating his disbelief about the existence of "gay cancer" over a series of pints or bedding a seemingly infinite number of lads we're taken on a journey of character development over a series of clips lasting 60 seconds.
- Teach us something important about the character.
- Show the passage of time.
- Deepen our understanding in a way that's more symbolic than just telling us straight out.
Direct to camera
What I didn't care for in these montage sequences was the direct to camera use of voice.
This is a technique where a character will break world role, stare straight at the camera and speak directly to the audience.
Richie does this an annoying amount - especially during his AIDS disbelief montage, as if he's trying to convince the audience that AIDS isn't real ... which felt like an unusual tactic given this is a history piece and the audience is all too well aware of the misery that is about to befall these young people. In that sense it served to emphasise his naivety but that felt unnecessary given the many other ways this is portrayed with more subtlety eg Ritchie's rampant casual sex scenes.
Overall though foreshadowing was used much more effectively throughout the series - a difficult thing to do when the audience already knows what they might expect to see.
Foreshadowing is a technique where future events are hinted at earlier on in the piece.
This is best pulled off through Colin's story line in a number of ways. First with his interactions with work colleague Henry (Neil Patrick Harris).
Acting as a mentor Henry is one of the first characters we meet that succumbs to the virus, along with his partner Pablo. This makes sense as while the rest of the cast is quite young and new to the gay scene (and therefore exposure to HIV) Henry is older and like to have acquired the virus sooner.
(...How very dare you Richie)
The origin story of Colin's own infection is brilliantly foreshadowed by just a glimpse at a dance party of him on the couch with the lad in the "footy shirt" and heartrendingly juxtaposed with the appearance of this same gent's mum (and Colin's former landlady), defending her son's sexual orientation as he also succumbs to AIDS at the hospital the night (*Spoiler Alert*) Colin dies.
Arguably one of the most touching death scenes I've seen in ages and just truly beautifully done. You can imagine there's been a lot of "Colin's" in the 40ish years of the HIV pandemic and it felt that his story symbolised a little piece of all of them. Just young innocent boys whose lives were snuffed out by a horrible disease. I'm glad the writer's told this story (although it left me in a blubbery puddle). It would have been 'easy' to stave the infections for the 'promiscuous' characters but in infecting Colin the writers managed to portray a more realistic picture of HIV infection - that it only takes that one time.
The Sexology Stuff
The beginning of a pandemic
The show manages to portray the beginning of the AIDS crisis in ways that felt fresh and logical given the characters involved.
So often HIV is told from the American viewpoint so it was interesting to see it from the UK perspective with the group initially framing it as an issue for "New York" gays, something foreign and removed from their world.
The framing of the concept of 'gay cancer' was also well explored and spoke to the problematic nature of naming diseases based on populations, people or places. Richie wittingly jokes:
... Do you seriously think there's an illness that only kills gay men? It can calculate that you're gay and kill you but no one else? Hmm. What about bisexuals? Do they only get sick every other day? And they say it's a cancer, but you can't catch cancer. Cancer is not a thing that can get caught. It's not like a cold or a cough. It's cancer. It doesn't transmit. 'Cause imagine it. Gay cancer. How is a cancer gay? I mean, what does it look like? Is it pink? Where is it? Is it in the wrists? I mean, for God's sake ...
You can imagine this level of banter across gay social circles in the early days because the messaging doesn't make sense. Only to be made worse and reinforced by the eventual public health response as portrayed as the series progresses - especially in examples such as isolated, locked, hospital wards.
What's more provocative are the characters own evolution as the virus enters their friendship circles and sexual partners begin to show tell tale signs, pushing some relationships to their limits and cementing others as lifelong family. As friends and acquaintances start disappearing the, sometimes complicated and flawed, responses of our main characters worked to reinforce the realness and rawness of, what was surely, a terrifying time for gay people. The show didn't shy away from complex issues like knowingly passing on the virus and how fear led to testing avoidance. But ultimately the overarching message felt about the local, grassroots response, of the LGBT community and their allies - who surely came together, as chosen family, to support one another.
Family and chosen family
Where It's a Sin really shines is in its portrayal of family vs chosen family - an often explored motif in gay-centric film and TV. The majority of our main characters have escaped their birth family settings to find community and acceptance amongst like-minded individuals - only to be bungee-corded back to family to die. Often removed without warning from the community they had come to rely on.
It really raised that notion of familial obligation, that you're 'supposed to' be with family in sickness or at 'the end' ... even if during the living part that relationship was complex or fragmented. And there was definitely a mix of fragmented, to beautiful, familial relationships for our characters.
From the cultural Nigeran - we'll pray for you - approach in Roscoe's story line ...
(She ain't havin' it!)
... to the integrated, but seemingly rarer, response of Colin's mother, we're given a broad spectrum of intricate family reactions which enriches the story without hyperbole.
Where this concept falls short is in it's representation of Jill - the mother hen of the group. Jill picks up the placard, along with the obligation, of researching about AIDS, educating her mates, caring for them as they became sick and bearing the brunt of their families. So much grief in her story that goes relatively unexplored. Her character is completely underdeveloped - she's never seen to have a partner or a life outside the group and whilst I can see how Jill represents all the women and friends picking up the slack of non-existent family to care for these boys it felt almost cruel to deny her more air time and story outside of this role. Not to cast shade on West's performance which was nothing short of stellar.
(Give her an Emmy!)
And speaking of underdone the biggest flaw of the series is the contrast between its focus on characters of colour against its white characters. The characters that succumb to AIDS are predominately white and this is problematic for several reasons.
Firstly, it doesn't represent the reality. With almost any health issue black and brown folks are disproportionately impacted and the same is true for the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Secondly, the characters with HIV get more airtime in the series, appropriate to its subtext, and with this more limelight, more character development, and more empathy from the audience.
Thirdly, shame is such a massive theme throughout the series. The show goes to great lengths to reinforce the internalised shame felt by these young gay men as they died, often in isolated hospital beds or childhood beds, either way removed from beloved friends. This theme is epitomised by the final conversation between Jill and Ritchie's mother where Jill lays it out to her:
He was ashamed, and he kept on being ashamed. He kept the shame going by having sex with men and infecting them and then running away, 'cause that's what shame does, Valerie. It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, "Yes... this is right. I brought this on myself. It's my fault because the sex that I love is killing me." I mean, it's astonishing. The perfect virus came along to prove you right. So that's what happened in your house. He died because of you. They all die... because of you.
(Seriously, West deserves the Emmy, all the Emmy's!)
Yet by denying the equal depiction of the same shared experience the show underutilises its black and brown characters and the intricate and complex story lines built up, but ultimately sidelined, by not pursuing how their deaths to AIDS could have led to deeper storytelling.
A missed opportunity in an otherwise well constructed mini series.
So! Now we're at the pointy end and it's score time. But don't worry ...
(... well usually)
Despite a few niggling issues there's little not to love with this one. I love a trip back to the 80's any day of the week and along with the music, fashion and typical temporal throwbacks, we're treated to a funny yet deeply moving piece of television.
Entertainment: 4/5 slates
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be "La"-ing with your mates for weeks.
Sexological: 4/5 stags
The HIV response has come such a long way since the 80s but retellings like this are essential reminders of the generation of young queer men lost to time. We must keep telling and reading and watching these stories in all their beautiful honesty. A real delight.
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Disclaimer: All material posted is the author's opinion and should not take the place of tailored advice, unique to your situation, from a medical or healthcare professional.
All images and gifs are sourced through wix.com and the author's private photo collection unless otherwise stated.