HBO Max's 'It's a Sin' is a Joyful, Gut-Wrenching Must-Watch

(Photo: HBO Max)
(Photo: HBO Max)

It's impossible to go into a drama that touts itself as the story of the AIDS crisis in 1980s London and expect anything that even remotely looks like a happy ending. And it's true, Russell T. Davies' haunting gut-punch of a drama, It's a Sin is unflinching in its willingness to be honest about the horrors that essentially wiped out a generation of gay men. But it's also a heartfelt and joyous celebration -- of the potential, the grace, and the sheer joy -- of those same lives. 

The series begins in 1981 when the threat of a nameless gay cancer is something present only in rumors and whispered background phone conversations. Three young gay men move to London, ready to chase their dreams and explore their sexualities in a city that's more accepting than the places they come from. Outgoing Ritchie (Olly Alexander) dreams of becoming an actor, at odds with his conservative Isle of Wight parents that want him to go into law. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) runs away from his Nigerian immigrant family who wants to pray the gay out of him. And Colin (Callum Scott Howells) arrives looking for the connection he's been unable to find in his Welsh hometown. 

Though clubs, parties, and nights at the pub, the young men dance and hook-up with abandon, embracing the lives and freedom they'd mainly been denied up until this point and building a sense of community amongst their little cadre of misfits and outcasts. Ritchie's acting school BFF Julia (Lydia West) rounds out the group, becoming a sort of emotional center for this hurricane of lost boys, who chase pleasure and break their hearts by turns. 

(Photo: HBO Max)
(Photo: HBO Max)

Engrossing and moving, the series' lean five episodes fly by, as full of hilarity as they are heartbreak, and seething with fury at the hostility and indifference with which so many treated those that were suffering. The ensemble cast is excellent all-around: Alexander has been rightfully landing the lion's share of the praise - though to be honest, the show does telescope a bit too tightly on his journey by the end. But Howells' innocently vulnerable Colin quietly steals the show, as does Waters' steadfast Jill, whose huge heart holds her chosen family together. 

But the sly brilliance of It's a Sin lies in its ever-creeping sense of dread. This is a horror story where only we know what the monster looks like, and even as the boys themselves seem to burn brighter than ever before, we're constantly aware of the brutal future lying in wait for them.

The characters' fumbling attempts to find out any sort of useful information about the virus, their naive trust in a government ill-equipped to help them, and the lack of universal standards and practices to treat those who were sick should feel frighteningly familiar to those of us currently living through the COVID-19 pandemic, yet It's a Sin is packed with these sort of uncomfortable period-accurate details that should sicken everyone who sees them.

(Photo: HBO Max)
(Photo: HBO Max)

AIDS victims' belongings were burned, patients were locked in solitary wards, and funeral homes would only cremate the dead in the middle of the night, out of fear of contamination. The constant shame many of these men were forced to live with - because they were gay, because they got sick, because that meant they'd done it to themselves, didn't it? - is heartrending, as more and more men are left die alone in sterile wards, either because they're estranged from their biological families or because their found ones died before they did. 

Now, looking back on all this, it feels surreal, impossible even - surely no one ever truly behaved that way toward their fellow man. And yet. this is who we were then. 

It's a Sin isn't about trying to make us feel better on that score: It wants us to look, and remember, and internalize it in a way that maybe we can't when watching something like And the Band Played On or The Normal Heart. Yes, this story lives and dies by how much you care about and relate to these characters, but that also means it stays with you a lot longer as a result. 

Because at the end of the day, this isn't a story about how any of these boys - and so many like them - died. It's about how they lived - how they managed to scratch some happiness and joy from a nightmarish time, in spite of the things they were facing. And that's the way we should remember them. 

All five episodes of It's A Sin are available on HBO Max.