Review: It's A Sin : Pop Culture Happy Hour It's A Sin chronicles the AIDS epidemic as experienced by a group of friends in London in the early 1980s. They come from different backgrounds, and deal with the dawning realization that a virus is ravaging their community in different ways. None of them will get through it unchanged, and some of them won't get through it at all.
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'It's A Sin' Chronicles The Plague Years

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'It's A Sin' Chronicles The Plague Years

'It's A Sin' Chronicles The Plague Years

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The HBO Max drama "It's A Sin" chronicles the AIDS epidemic as experienced by a group of friends in London in the early 1980s. They come from different backgrounds and deal with the dawning realization that a virus is ravaging their community in different ways, but none of them will get through it unchanged, and some of them won't get through it at all. I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about the painful and joyous "It's A Sin" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELDON: Welcome back. Joining us from his home is frequent NPR contributor and culture writer Bilal Qureshi. Hi, Bilal.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Hi, Glen.

WELDON: It's good to have you.

OK, so "It's A Sin" stars Olly Alexander as Ritchie, an inexperienced yet fabulous twink from the Isle of Wight; Omari Douglas as Roscoe, whose strictly religious Nigerian family has rejected him; and Callum Scott Howells as the shy, unprepossessing Welsh lad Colin. Lydia West plays their friend Jill, who will prove the glue that holds this group of friends together through some very, very trying times.

Now, this series was created by Russell T. Davies, whom audiences will know from starting the "Doctor Who" reboot, the so-called New Who, back in 2005. Last year, HBO aired his drama "Years And Years," which extrapolated what would happen to the human race if current cultural trends continued. Spoiler - nothing good. But he made his bones in the 1990s as the man behind the original U.K. version of "Queer As Folk." That series was also about the lives of young gay men, but it ignored the specter of AIDS completely. He said at the time he didn't want the gay lives he wrote about to be, quote, "defined by disease." Decades later, he's come back to make "It's A Sin," a series all about how AIDS reshaped, redefined and ultimately wiped out an entire generation of gay men.

Bilal, this is heavy stuff. What'd you think?

QURESHI: Yeah, it is heavy. And yet I have to say this is one of, as you said in your intro, one of the most joyous, exuberant and, frankly, like, sexy shows, which is a very - I know it's strange to say that about a series that is about death and about loss, but it happens to be tonally one of the coolest shows I've seen in the entire sort of, like, television boom that we're living in, in the sense that it manages to be both incredibly exuberant, incredibly joyous, incredibly celebratory of friendship, of life.

And I think one of the things Russell T. Davies has said is that, you know, I think art that's been made about the AIDS crisis and then the loss of people is, certainly, by definition, heavy and tragic but that you can't really appreciate the loss until you love the people who are lost. And I think one of the things that this show does so beautifully is, I felt, that you completely fall in love with this group of friends that have all come from various parts of England, various forms of repression in their families and moved into this group house, which is also wonderful because one has not been in a group house for a long time. And so I think this idea of people just being close and with each other and being in love with each other as friends, I think the way that you fall in love with them and the way this is written is what makes it so powerful.

And I don't feel that it ever sort of moves into kind of losing that amazing balance between both being tragic and sad and also being incredibly funny and very British and very quick and very cool. I just think it's a very cool show. I mean, everything from the soundtrack to the clothes to the cast - it's - this is an incredibly stylish show.

WELDON: To the music. I mean, the needle drops in this thing - I mean, I'm not just saying this as a 52-year-old gay man, but I'm primarily saying this as a 52-year-old gay man. I just love the music in this.

It is - and this is, you know, glib to say about something that has this much pain. It is a tough sit. But ultimately, it's a rewarding one because - I did have some problems with it, though. We come into this knowing a lot more than the characters do, which means it behooves a screenwriter to have a light touch. A light touch is not something that Russell T. Davies has ever been accused of, and he never will be.

So if you have a scene, Bilal, like the one where Ritchie - this happens very early on. Ritchie and his father are on the ferry to the mainland from the Isle of Wight. Ritchie's father gives him a box of condoms and says, don't make a girl pregnant. Ritchie waits for his father to leave and then throws the condoms off the ferry, Bilal. It's like, can we please pump the brakes a bit? Can we not put a hat on a hat on a hat? But then I realized, OK, I can't assume that people are coming into this from my perspective. If you didn't live through this time, I bet a scene like that hits you very differently.

QURESHI: Yeah. I have to say, you know, I mean, I saw the play "The Inheritance," which is this eight-hour play that opened on Broadway from - it's an American play by Matthew Lopez, which is about a group of gay friends in New York who meet, you know, older gay men and come to realize how in this generation, they don't understand and know enough about the inheritance of loss that - you know, they're the generation freed from that. And so it's all about kind of understanding the pain.

And it's a very - it was - I mean, I really disliked that play, I have to say, even though it got, like, rave sort of reviews. But it was very not only heavy, but it had a really didactic kind of feeling that there's nothing funny, no light in this period whatsoever. And I feel like things like what you just described - throwing a condom away, having crazy parents who say quirky things like - and also, frankly, a lot of people having fun having sex as well, which is something that I also think this show does, which is kind of unusual in series on this subject. But I found it sort of like the didactic kind of nature and the sort of heavy burden of that inheritance of gay AIDS history.

You know, frankly, to be able to do a new thing with it and to be able to give people a little breathing room with it is something that I think ultimately dramatically is much more impactful because I didn't want to think about "The Inheritance." I'm sorry to say it that way, but I didn't find that to be something that really ultimately, you know, stayed with me in the way that this show has.

WELDON: Yeah. I mean, the lack of didacticism is something you just - you actually put the nail on the head there because that's what I noticed most about this series. There are a lot of voices in the queer community who say, look; we've spent years telling stories of our struggle and pain. We've churned out AIDS dramas by the metric ton. We've chronicled homophobic violence. We have told stories about the way the closet, you know, poisons the soul and ruins lives. And now it's time to tell other stories, you know?

And one of the people expressing that opinion most loudly was Russell T. Davies himself back in the '90s, as I mentioned in the intro. Who knows what changed his mind on that? So now he's telling these stories. But I have a guess. On a recent episode of the BBC Radio 4 series "Desert Island Discs," which is a great show, he talked about caring for his partner, who died of brain cancer. And we have a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "DESERT ISLAND DISCS")

RUSSELL T DAVIES: Actually, those eight years that I cared for him are our happiest years. Actually, they were - the 12 years before that were lovely. We were just a normal couple. But in the late years...

LAUREN LAVERNE: Why were they happy?

DAVIES: Well, they were so intimate and so honest. And everything else just falls away, and there's no nonsense, and it's just you and him. And I wish I could tell you we had the most profound conversations. More often than not, you'd just find us watching "The Chase" or something. But just that care, the love - I'm talking about love here. That's the word, love. And to be able to be like that - he was properly cared for. He was properly cherished. And that made me feel good as well. I actually miss that. I'm sure I wasn't a saint at the time.

WELDON: I mean, that right there - that unlocked this series for me because there is a lot of pain and death in the show, a lot of characters sitting by hospital beds. And I know that listeners, when I say that, they're going to think, OK, this is misery porn. And I know misery porn. I've seen AIDS misery porn before. I'm a movie critic. I was a theater critic. I've seen lots of AIDS dramas over the years. And perhaps unfairly, I come to this thinking, I want to see something brought to the table that hasn't been brought to the table before.

What I haven't seen depicted as fully and as smartly as is depicted in the show is AIDS denialism, which was very much a thing that people forget about because, of course - I mean, imagine it for a second. You have just figured yourself out. You have just overcome a lot of persecution. You have finally - comfortable in your own skin. You found a community of people who love you for who you are. And the minute that happens, it seems as if the universe itself is aligning with every homophobic bigot who put you down, with every dark thought you've ever had about yourself to eradicate you. That would be literally incredible. You wouldn't believe it.

And here is a clip where Ritchie, who is not a side character, by the way, who is the hero of the show, expresses exactly that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

OLLY ALEXANDER: (As Ritchie) Do you know what it really is, AIDS? It's a racket. It's a money-making scheme for drugs companies. Do you seriously think there's an illness that only kills gay men, it can calculate that you're gay and kill you but no one else? What about bisexuals? Do they only get sick every other day? And they say it's a cancer, but you can't catch cancer. Cancer is not a thing that can get caught. It's not like a cold or a cough. It's cancer. It doesn't transmit. Just imagine it - gay cancer. How is a cancer gay? I mean...

WELDON: So right there - the important thing about this show is that it captures, like, the dawning realization that something's happening, but it also follows the aftermath. It captures the fear, the shame that triggers reflexive behavior. You know you've got it, but you deny that fact to yourself and you keep hooking up with dudes. That is not a flattering depiction by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a thing that happened.

And Davies isn't shying away from that. I mean, he named the damn show "It's A Sin" not just because it's a kickass Pet Shop Boys tune, although it is very that - because he's grappling with the difference between personal guilt and communal shame - right? - the shame that comes from without the queer community, of course, but also from within it. I mean, he's playing in the same sandbox that Larry Kramer played in, but Davies has a lot more empathy and a lot less, as you mentioned, a lot less didacticism.

QURESHI: Well, you know, you mentioned the scene where Ritchie is talking about, you know, his own denialism. And one of the things that's amazing is - I have to talk about how stylish the show is because as he's giving this speech, he's directly talking to the camera and walking through multiple settings from, like, making out with guys that he's turning to while he's saying things. Then at one point he says, cue the lasers, and the club's lasers come on as he's dancing, as he's saying these things.

So the show is kind of also - you know, and we see the home that Ritchie comes from, which is this incredibly provincial, conservative, you know, small family home. And he is also liberated to be able to finally express his sexuality. And I think one of the things this show, for me, captured really brilliantly is the great tragedy being that you finally have the chance to, like, have sex and do the thing that you have not been able to do, and that very thing is the thing that is going to potentially kill you.

And so I think one of the things I also find really not only brave, but kind of quite radical about the show is that it has very, you know, graphic sex, and it has all kinds of sex and it has all kinds of conversations about gay sex that I don't think I've seen in TV before in the same way. And, you know, in the U.K., where it has already come out, there was some, like, backlash and controversy to the idea that, why is this on Channel Four, which is where it aired, on, like, prime time? And, you know, and I think about sort of the big gay stories that have come out or queer male stories that have come out in the last few years, and that was one of the critiques of "Call Me By Your Name" - right? - was like, where - what actually happened with the peach? Nobody actually saw it.

And so the point is that I think, in a way, this actually goes there and shows you the pleasure that people are finally able to have. And it's very exuberant. That's the exuberant kind of nature of it is that it also really revels in sex, which I also think makes, again, the loss that comes from that so much more poignant because you understand how powerful that must've been when you've been denied that by all of your families and communities and societies.

WELDON: I agree completely. I mean, like, the depictions of sex are very clear-eyed, matter of fact. They're not eroticized necessarily. There are not, like, gently wafting curtains anywhere. It's just sex. It's so plain and direct that it's kind of a relief if you're used to panning away to the gently wafting curtains.

But it's not just about sex. I mean, he has said - Russell T. Davies has said that the involvement of Neil Patrick Harris is what helped get this thing made. Now, we should let people know that NPH has a very small role in the grand scheme of things, but it's a very important one. He plays a kind of queer mentor/protector of the Colin character. And I kept waiting for something creepy to happen in that relationship, Bilal, and it never did. And I was so glad it didn't 'cause that is a crucial thing about queer life, the kind of mentor role. We have a clip of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IT'S A SIN")

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Henry Coltrane) You don't have to worry about me. I'm not remotely interested. If you insist on asking - and, really, I can't get a word in edgeways with you, dear God - but I live in Hackney with a very nice man from the Algarve, and we've been together for decades. So you're perfectly safe with me, Colin Morris-Jones. Really, though - perfectly safe.

WELDON: Aw. I mean, that's, like, such a nice relationship to see. You very rarely see it depicted. I really enjoyed that plot thread.

QURESHI: And then he proceeds to scream out in the bar, like, one more for the bender, which is, you know...

WELDON: Yup, yup.

QURESHI: ...Just another, like, kind of extraordinary - like, again, the tone thing going on here is that both at one point mentoring and then being cheeky, as it were.

I have to say the other thing, I mean, I think is so amazing about the show is the women in the show. I'm sure there will be a lot of conversations about the character of Jill, who's played by Lydia West, who's sort of also the mother. And you mentioned her as the glue of this group of friends. And it's very much a caregiving kind of almost angelic character in a lot of ways. But she is, in a way, the most - she's the central character of the show for me. And I think this caregiving is really also the other theme of the series.

And I think that, you know, for me, I was also thinking about how in depictions of gay life, like, you know, you have sometimes, obviously, the kind of quirky, fun, shopping sort of gay friend who is often the ancillary to the sort of straight central characters or the woman central character. I'm thinking about "My Best Friend's Wedding," which for me was sort of a gay classic. Maybe it's not considered that, but I think of it as one. But - you know, the '90s, at least. And I think that here, you have women actually at the center of the show, too, and written with a lot - as well, a lot of material.

And Russell T. Davies has said the show's autobiographical. Jill is based on his own kind of, you know, friend Jill, who is also the mother in the show of the character Jill. So I think that, you know, this is - also centers women and the friendship with women and, I think, in a way, a much more nuanced depiction of the relationships between gay men and their female friends or besties in a way that I don't think I had seen as much before.

WELDON: OK, I'm going to push back on you there...

QURESHI: Please.

WELDON: ...Bilal, because, I mean, the actress does what she can with that role of Jill, but she is entirely defined by her relationship with these dudes. She exists to support them. We find out she has a job. I thought that was good. She's an actress in a kind of alternate universe version of "Les Mis." But, you know, I probably wouldn't have noticed it if Russell T. Davies didn't have such a long history here. He has been criticized a lot about his depictions of women as flat, as one-note, as existing to define the men around them. I don't see a lot of evidence he's changed much here. Did you feel that at all?

QURESHI: Yeah. I mean, I think that you're right to some extent. There are, like, ideas - you know, people who do feel a little bit like they're kind of holding ideas. And then there's also - Jill's also the activist of the group. She's the one organizing the protests and the caregiving. And she's - as you said, she doesn't seem like she does much except for do everything for this group of men.

But I will say I think the thing that was amazing is the women who are in the show, including the actress who plays Ritchie's mother - the performances are incredible.

WELDON: Sure, absolutely.

QURESHI: I also found that the multiracial nature of the cast, too, is something really incredible. I mean, Jill is, I think, biracial. One of the central characters is obviously British Nigerian, and he has his particular dynamic with his mother and sister. And so I think the kind of spectrum of people on screen, it comes at you with so many different characters. And it's also, if you think about it, it's actually only four hours long total 'cause it's five episodes at 45 minutes each.

WELDON: Right.

QURESHI: So a lot happens in four hours. I mean, "The Inheritance" was, like, eight hours. And I feel like this did so much in a short amount of time. And I've also seen "Angels In America" not in any kind of, like - I mean, I feel like I've wanted to go to sort of, like, gay graduate school and, like...

WELDON: Sure.

QURESHI: ...Get my education as is needed. And I - but I found that this did so much with within its time as well, so a lot of people are in it.

Now, but the other thing is, of course, I mean, I was also very impacted by the fact that it was obviously filmed before the pandemic. And there are people who have talked about, obviously, you know, the echoes of the way that governments not only denied, but then, you know, fundamentally mishandled the treatment of all these people - people denied care, people isolated. Nobody - you know, and I think that's the other thing about it that constantly suddenly carries this charge as you're watching it in 2021, is that all of it feels like this is a kind of precursor. Obviously, it's affected one community in particular in a very disproportionate way, but it is a precursor to the way that we still don't have an idea of what we do with disease and how we care for people, and especially how societies fail people in that situation. There's a lot of time in hospitals that is, I think, about just that idea that I just found really poignant and I think will be poignant for everyone who watches it.

WELDON: I mean, that's the thing about it. I mean, we have this joy amidst all this pain, and that's what makes this show, I think, compelling to watch. And don't be scared off. Don't be afraid of it. It is ultimately incredibly rewarding.

We want to know what you think about "It's A Sin." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh.

And that brings us to the end of our show. Bilal, thanks for being here.

QURESHI: Thank you so much for having me, Glen.

WELDON: And one last thing before we go - we're going to be talking about the show "King Of The Hill," and we want your questions. You can send a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, send a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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