*This review is an in-depth look at the series and contains spoilers for the entire series which available on All4 now.*
It’s A Sin is a Russell T Davies masterpiece like you’ve never seen before and is already of one of the best shows of the year.
A historical miniseries comprised of five episodes, the series follows a group of friends in 1980s London navigating love, friendship and the AIDS crisis, it’s a skilful amalgamation of joy and loss, happiness and fear, with Davies beautifully interposing the most elating moments with the most heart-breaking in such a way that you never can get too comfortable as a viewer. Every moment of youthful radiance is followed shortly after by a powerful, heart-wrenching revelation of loss, which builds slowly throughout each episode until it reaches its closing moments when Davies reveals the final, breath-taking emotional punch.
Even in the first episode, when main character Ritchie (Olly Alexander) is peering through a classroom window lustfully at Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), we hear a hushed conversation behind him about this mysterious new disease in the most heart-breaking form of dramatic irony that tinges even the most innocent of moments in the series. This is perhaps the first example of how Davies depicts the gradual way in which AIDS makes its way into our main characters’ lives. What starts out as a ripple of whispered conversations and misinformation becomes a tidal wave of pain and loss that rips through their lives like a tsunami. We see AIDS go from this hushed conversation to the very suggestion of it getting Colin fired from his job in the following episode. And we cringe as an audience as Ritchie and the others laugh it off, knowing what is undoubtedly to come for them.
Even the characters that we watch being diagnosed with AIDS become gradually more significant to us, bringing the message closer to home episode-by-episode. The first is the charismatic Henry Coltrane, (Neil Patrick Harris). Harris has the monumental task of being the first to take us as an audience through the whole painful journey of AIDS in such a limited time on screen, and he does it masterfully. When Coltrane first saunters into the story it’s to save the shy and naïve Colin (Callum Scott Howells) from his lecherous boss. At times, Harris’ portrayal of Coltrane borders on a caricature of a stereotypical English dandy that doesn’t sit right with the era or the series. He feels larger-than-life, where the rest of the characters feel so down-to-earth that the contrast is uneasy.
However, when Colin finds Coltrane in his hospital bed with this mysterious illness that’s being talked about in whispers, Harris magnificently breaks down this fantastical character that he has build in his limited time on our screens – and you almost have to wonder if he purposefully made Coltrane so much larger than life in order to make his transition into AIDS even more striking.
From this moment on, AIDS only creeps further into their lives – we go from watching Coltrane dying in his hospital bed to close friend Gregory (David Carlyle) rapidly declining at home; then finally to Colin and Ritchie’s own terrifying diagnoses. Each time, we get to see more and more of the whole frightening journey, so that by the time Colin and Ritchie receive their diagnoses, we already know what lies ahead of them, instilling a similar fear in us as an audience.
This epitomises how Davies is able to amp up the seriousness and the gravity of the situation each episode, the whole thing building to its tragic peak when Ritchie reveals his diagnosis to his friends. By then, we’ve already seen the disease take the lives of four others and learned alongside our main characters what that means, and so by the time it reaches the untouchable, uninhibited Ritchie Tozer, we feel the full weight of their hopelessness.
And yet, when Ritchie stares intently across the camera at his friends and tells them – and us – that he’s going to live, there’s still a part of us that believes him, which is down to this dynamic, unstoppable character that Olly Alexander has created. The Years & Years frontman is unrecognisable without his trademark bright red hair and colourful jumpsuits, but it’s his extraordinary performance that commands attention. From the moment that we meet him as starry-eyed aspiring actor Ritchie Tozer nonchalantly discouraging his mother (Keeley Hawes) from cleaning out his wardrobe lest she finds his collection of gay porn mags, he has our attention. Alexander’s portrayal of Ritchie epitomises the beauty and freedom of youth – especially gay youth in the eighties – as well as the naivety. He is as free in his relationships as he is with his words. Alexander delivers Davies’s captivating monologues with ease.
Ritchie, like the rest of the gang here, feels so incredibly real. So much so that by the time this determined, liberating force tells us – despite the firm reality of his diagnosis – that he’s going to live, we believe him. Which is what makes it all the more shocking in the final moments of the last episode when see him pass away at home. His death, further hammers home the point that this awful disease doesn’t discriminate. Ritchie could not have been more different from the fearful, doe-eyed Colin, yet AIDS turned him into a paranoid hypochondriac and took him the same way. Davies mirrors this message in the episode following Colin’s death, which opens with a funeral that we’re led to believe is Colin’s, yet turns out to be for AIDS helpline volunteer, Peter, showing how these men’s stories are painfully interchangeable in their similarities. Colin’s death, though not the first, hits the hardest. His disease doesn’t present the same as the others. His starts with violent and unexpected epileptic fits, which means his disease has reached his brain. Callum Scott Howells delivers an incredibly emotional monologue from his hospital bed. The disease now playing cruel tricks on his brain, he confesses his love for Ritchie, who is just starting to take the power of AIDS seriously. The third episode of It’s a Sin, is one you’ll be thinking about for a long time.
Another standout performance comes in the form of Omari Douglas as the outspoken and vibrant Roscoe. From the moment that he storms into the living room, dressed in a miniskirt with suitcase in hand, declaring that his family can find him at “23 Piss Off Avenue, London W F**k”, we know that he’s one to watch. His witty, tongue-in-cheek one-liners make him a breath of fresh air amongst the tragedy that unfolds throughout the series. The shot of him walking away from his family home in the rain after they try to send him to Nigeria for being gay is the first of many standout moments across the series and introduces us to the theme of family that runs throughout.
When we first meet Ritchie and Roscoe, we see that the tables that they sit at with their families are both loveless and restrictive in one form or another. There is tension in Ritchie’s family over his career choices, as well as his inability to tell them that he’s gay. Roscoe’s family grip his hands and hysterically pray for his soul to be saved. Neither could be further from the kitchen table at the Pink Palace – the nickname the characters give their apartment that they share with Jill (Lydia West), Colin and Ash. The kitchen table is central to the series. It’s where the characters come to laugh, to cry, and to be themselves – in stark contrast to the tables that Roscoe and Ritchie find themselves at the beginning of the series, they will always have a seat at this one. And from the very first episode, Davies invites us to pull up a chair too by introducing us so intimately to each of the characters. He ensures that we understand every private joke, every nickname and every sexual encounter that’s ever occurred between them. This is a family, and Davies solidifies our places as a part of it.
In the final episode, Ritchie’s mother struggle with the new family her son has become a part of. She’s jealous of the time that the Pink Palace family has spent with Ritchie and the secrets that they kept, lashing out against matriarch, Jill. Mrs Tozer accuses Jill of running around after the boys and thus not having a life of her own.
Admittedly, up until this point, I had also been wondering why we don’t know more about Jill. Besides her family’s initiation into the Pink Palace, we know very little about her life outside of the boys – but in this scene, it becomes clear. The Pink Palace boys are Jill’s life. And even after they’re gone, she dedicates her life to them, continuing her work with the AIDS helpline. The Pink Palace is a family, and Jill is the mother figure that nurses them when they’re sick, comes to their rescue when they make mistakes, and fights for their rights in ways that many of their own families don’t. She is the perfect example of the value of a chosen family for LGBT+ people – particularly when biological families are less than accepting.
Thus, as much as It’s A Sin is a story of struggle and pain for gay men living in the 80s, it is also the perfect celebration of their lives. It’s properly joyous when Jill defends Ritchie from Mrs Tozer’s denial that he could possibly be gay, shaking her head and declaring that Ritchie is “beautifully gay”. The series may be a tragic and emotional depiction of the realities of the AIDS crisis, but it is also an unapologetic celebration of sexual fluidity, exploration, love and freedom, summed up by Ritchie’s dying words to his mother. This is what Ritchie – and undoubtedly Davies – doesn’t want to be lost in translation. As he lies dying in his childhood bedroom, Ritchie tells his mother that he doesn’t want anyone to forget how fun it all was, and this too is what Davies reminds us of. He reminds us of the pain and the loss, the discrimination and the neglectful way in which the crisis was handled, but he also reminds us that before all of that, there was this beautifully gay subculture in London where LGBT+ people could come to be themselves, uninhibited and free.
It’s A Sin is a dazzling must-watch, and while it’s almost definitely too early to call the series of the year – this will certainly be a contender no matter what comes after. It is a beautifully crafted story of love, loss, laughter and liberty, with an incredible cast of both esteemed actors such as Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry, and sensational newcomers Omari Douglas and Nathaniel Curtis. Whether you lived it or not, this series will find a way to resonate with you and bring both laughter and tears to your living rooms, and the messages that it leaves us with stretch far beyond the AIDS crisis – reminding us of the importance of family, freedom to be yourself and to love who you choose.
Contributed by Megan Hyland
It’s a Sin Continues Friday at 9.00pm on Channel 4 and is available in full on All4 Now.