For those of a certain age, the early months of the current pandemic dredged up ugly memories of the 1980s.
The first AIDS cases were reported by the Centers for Disease Control 40 years ago in June. But, as with the late-winter arrival of COVID-19, they did not spark a rigorous legislative initiative to cure, so much as a murderous effort to bury — to bury the truth, and to bury the devalued communities wasting away from HIV. President Reagan did not publicly mention AIDS until 1985, by which time over 12,000 Americans had died. Tragically, in this country, a plague can become a political weapon, or a pawn in the “values” wars, instead of a dire emergency.
Like the Trump administration’s indifferent response to COVID-19, the five-part miniseries “It’s a Sin” will also bring back the rage and sorrow of the first years of the AIDS crisis. The scripted drama, set in London across the 1980s, depicts the disbelief, the disgust, the desperation, and, most of all, the heartbreak of the moment. And it does so in one of the more powerful narrative ways possible — by focusing on the human story, through portraits of fictional friends coping with the advent of the disease and the horrific public reaction to it. “It’s a Sin” invites us to feel affection for these young souls new to London, each fleeing hometown homophobia, and then sends them through the ringer. From Russell T. Davies, creator of the groundbreaking “Queer as Folk,” the miniseries serves as a kind of companion piece to that celebratory, largely AIDS-free British series of 1999 (remade on Showtime in 2000). It’s the tarnished side of the same coin.
“It’s a Sin” does not try to capture the political aspects of the AIDS crisis; it’s really about the fallout from those governmental failures, the people they trickled down to, and the sweat and tears they caused. The best way to portray the policy problems of the early AIDS years tends to be documentarily — “How to Survive a Plague,” for example, the moving 2012 look at AIDS activism. A number of documentaries — including “We Were Here” in 2011 and “Tongues Untied” and “Common Threads” in 1989 — chillingly chronicle the way gay men in particular were living in the equivalent of a war zone, when reality was bleaker and more sinister than fiction could convey. Even partially fictionalized docudramas about the AIDS upheavals of the 1980s often miss the mark, including the star-studded but soulless 1993 HBO adaptation of Randy Shilts’s “And the Band Played On” and ABC’s superficial 2017 miniseries “When We Rise.”
Available Thursday on HBO Max, “It’s a Sin” is an intimate period ensemble drama about families of choice that’s in league with some of the better evocations of the dawning of AIDS in the gay community, including “Parting Glances” (with Steve Buscemi) in 1986 and “Longtime Companion” in 1989. More recently, FX’s “Pose” has also poignantly shown how friends can become family especially in times of catastrophe. We meet each of the main “It’s a Sin” characters — Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), and Roscoe (Omari Douglas) — before they make it to the city, as they escape from secrecy and parental rejection. Once together, they form a cozy group of roommates, with Ritchie’s old friend Jill (Lydia West) as the essential ally whose caretaking role becomes increasingly important. Each episode jumps ahead a few years, in the manner of Davies’s remarkable “Years and Years,” so that, alas, you’re never quite sure which characters will still be alive in the next chapter.
Colin, who is from Wales, is the sweetest of the group, and the least archetypally drawn; Ritchie, for example, is a more familiar sort, an attention-loving twink. With his heavy accent, Colin is an introverted guy whose great honor it is to serve as a high-end tailor. He meets an older gay colleague, Henry, beautifully played as a dry-humored gentleman by Neil Patrick Harris, whose long-term relationship inspires Colin to feel more comfortable about his sexuality. Ritchie, on the other hand, is outgoing and sexually adventurous, in love with his hedonistic lifestyle even as it flies in the face of the breaking news. The world was in a sort of denial about AIDS, and so were some gay men and drug addicts, at least at first. When Jill tells Ritchie that gay men are dying from sex, he says, in some of the show’s ironic humor, “Don’t be ridiculous, that would be all over the news.” Ritchie also wonders if AIDS is a lie propagated to scare gay men from having sex.
I can’t say that “It’s a Sin” approaches the heights of HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” which is for me the best, most provoking, and most complex fictional portrait of the impact of AIDS. I’m not sure anything could. But the always impressive Davies, whose credits also include the reboot of “Dr. Who,” “Torchwood,” and the miniseries “A Very English Scandal,” delivers a worthy addition to the AIDS canon. It’s a grim survey, certainly, one that might serve as a concise introduction to the times for a younger person. But it’s also filled with endearing comedy and nostalgia for the joy and innocence of the men who came to the city. They were neglected and worse, victims of the cold, homophobic powers that be. The titular sins? They were not committed by the men who died.