It’s not a spoiler, surely, to say that this ’80s-set series about the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic is deeply moving. Written by Russell T Davies, creator of game-changing gay drama Queer as Folk, It’s a Sin gradually acquires a thick veil of poignancy over its five episodes. Some parts will put a lump in your throat, while others will get you in the gut. But It’s a Sin isn’t just sad – it’s also vibrant, evocative and daring. The sex scenes probably won’t catch anyone off guard in 2021, but the unapologetic references to masturbation might make you gasp.
The story begins in 1981 with 18-year-old Ritchie Tozer (Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander) moving from the Isle of Wight to London. He’s the archetypal smalltown boy that Bronski Beat sang about: a closeted gay kid who heads to the city to find a more authentic life. Once there, he sacks off his law degree so he can study acting and begins to explore his sexuality hungrily in the clubs and in the bedroom. Crucially, he also builds a chosen family with compassionate classmate Jill (Lydia West) and three gay male friends at a pad they brand the “Pink Palace”.
Though It’s a Sin returns to Ritchie most frequently, it also spotlights Roscoe (Omari Douglas), the courageous queer son of Nigerian immigrants, and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), a wide-eyed Welsh boy who lacks his flatmates’ confidence. Throughout, endlessly empathetic Jill provides the Pink Palace’s beating heart as the “gay cancer” that her friends try to deny at the start of the decade ultimately comes to define their lives. Only sweet teacher Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is a little short-changed when it comes to screen time. Still, he does get to deliver the series’ most political moment: a crisp evisceration of Section 28, the Thatcher government’s cruel directive prohibiting the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools.
Along the way, there are game cameos from Neil Patrick Harris as Colin’s tender mentor and Stephen Fry as a hypocritical politician pursued by Roscoe, but they hardly overshadow the talented young cast. Anchored by a banging soundtrack of ’80s classics including Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys and Kate Bush, It’s a Sin feels authentically retro without getting too bogged down in big hair and Bananarama-style ra-ra skirts. Davies also slips in a few knowing in-jokes sending up society’s then-naive attitudes towards homosexuality.
Other moments touch a nerve as we battle another disease we don’t fully understand – especially Ritchie’s monologue exposing the contradictory rumours that initially surrounded the “gay cancer” – but It’s a Sin would be hard-hitting in any year. By telling this story through the eyes of warm, flawed and sometimes frustrating characters you’ll care about, it offers a heartbreaking reminder of the countless lives claimed by HIV/AIDS.
‘It’s a Sin’ is on Channel 4 and All 4 from January 22