DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Thursday, HBO Max is premiering an acclaimed new British miniseries called "It's A Sin." The show follows a group of friends in 1980s London whose lives are forever changed by the arrival of AIDS. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the show pulls you in and is eerily timely.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Pop culture has a genius for transforming painful history into enjoyable entertainment. It can turn Nazi camps into the sitcom "Hogan's Heroes." It can spin the murder of Israeli athletes into the thriller "Munich." And it can use the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa to kickstart the superhero saga "Watchmen." The emergence of AIDS provides the impetus for "It's A Sin," a hit British series about five young people who share a London apartment over the years from 1981 to 1991. The show is the semiautobiographical brainchild of Russell T. Davies, a writer best known for creating "Queer As Folk" and resurrecting "Doctor Who."
With his gimlet eye for the pop jugular, Davies turns the story of that deadly pandemic into a soapy drama that, like many dance songs from that era, is equal parts bounciness and woe. The series begins with the coming together of five gay or gay friendly characters. There's cocky, self-involved Richie, played by pop star Olly Alexander, who wants to be an actor. There's campy Roscoe, who's been booted from his home by his Nigerian Christian family and hooks up with a conservative MP played by Stephen Fry. There's sturdy Ash Mukherjee, an attractive teacher, and the touchingly naive Colin, a young Welshman who works for a Savile Row tailor. Holding the house all together is Jill. That's Lydia West, another aspiring actor based on Davis' real-life best friend.
By day, the five try to make their careers. By night, they party, laughing and dancing and shagging like sex was going out of style. The group showman, Ritchie, gives blithe speeches mocking rumors of a disease that attacks gay people. How do I know it's not true, he asks. Because I'm not stupid.
But he is wrong. The first real inkling comes from Colin's gay mentor at the tailor shop, Henry. Here, Henry, played by Neil Patrick Harris, begins talking to Colin about how his longtime boyfriend has been put in the hospital.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")
NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Henry) They've taken him into hospital.
CALLUM SCOTT HOWELLS: (As Colin) Oh, sorry. Is he all right?
HARRIS: (As Henry) Yeah, a fuss over nothing. They said it was pneumonia, then they said it was like something you get from birds in his lungs. They said it was strange. They said it was some kind of psittacosis.
HOWELLS: (As Colin) What, like you get in parrots?
HARRIS: (As Henry) That's what they said.
HOWELLS: (As Colin) You haven't got a parrot, have you?
HARRIS: (As Henry) Of course we haven't got a [expletive] parrot. She sat me down. She said, has he been in contact with any birds? I said, no. I mean, what sort of question is that - birds?
HOWELLS: (As Colin) But people don't get psittacosis, do they?
HARRIS: (As Henry) Well, no, except there he is.
POWERS: Davis' shows have always known how to grab you, but even his admirers would never fault him for subtlety. Not overly concerned with getting things absolutely right, he largely ignores the lives of middle-aged gays and lesbians and makes the gay clubs sleeker and less grungy than they actually were. If you want a deep and nuanced portrait of HIV hitting London during the Thatcher era, you'll do far better reading Alan Hollinghurst's novel "The Line Of Beauty."
The show's aim is to make us feel both sides of gay life in those years. He celebrates its hedonistic freedom and sheer fun. The show's fueled by songs from Blondie, Erasure and the Pet Shop Boys, one of whose anthems gives this series its title. But he also wants us to feel the tragedy - and we do. The show is unexpectedly moving, especially Colin's thread. Characters we like die miserable deaths, and those who don't struggle against both a profound sense of loss and a society that seemingly doesn't care. Everyone is deepened, even the narcissistic Ritchie.
Now, "It's A Sin" is far from perfect. Davis originally wrote the show to be eight episodes but could only get funding for five, so the action feels rushed. More space might have let him give his female characters more dimension. While West makes a wonderful Jill, her character is so busy being saintly, she has no inner complexity or even sexuality. At the other end, Ritchie's mum, ferociously played by Keeley Hawes, displays such villainous rigidity that the role verges on misogyny.
Yet for all that, "It's A Sin" resonates emotionally, especially right now, for like COVID, AIDS had its deniers and its conspiracy theorists. It had government heads who didn't take it seriously and scads of ordinary people who, feeling unthreatened themselves, believed the victims were dispensable. And just like COVID, AIDS led to hundreds of thousands of people dying largely out of sight and often alone, cut off from those who knew them best and loved them most. Watching this series, you may think that the real sin is how we turn viruses into moral and political battles.
DAVIES: John Powers reviewed the British miniseries "It's A Sin," which begins tomorrow on HBO Max.
On tomorrow's show, we speak with Claire Cain Miller. She writes about gender, families and work for The New York Times. Nearly 3 million women dropped out of the workforce last year, many to stay home and help their children with remote learning. We'll talk about how moms are coping and what government and employers could do to enable more of them to stay in the workforce. I hope you can join us.
We'll end today's show with the Fania All-Stars. Fania was the label started in the 1960s which popularized salsa music. It's known as the Motown of salsa. The co-founder of Fania was flutist and bandleader Johnny Pacheco, who died on Monday at the age of 85. Fania's roster of stars included Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe. This is one of Lavoe's hits, written by Johnny Pacheco, who's also leading the band live at Yankee Stadium.
For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI GENTE")
HECTOR LAVOE: (Singing in Spanish).
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