UK TV review: It’s a Sin
James R | On 19, Feb 2021
This spoiler-free review of It’s a Sin is based on all five episodes. Already seen the show? Relive some of the programme’s best moments in our spoiler-filled article.
“My friend says it’s a plague.” “Don’t be silly. That’d be all over the news.”
Russell T Davies’ astonishing new series is steeped in historical accuracy, period glee and gorgeously likeable characters, as we follow five friends growing up in the 1980s. It’s also overshadowed by heartbreaking tragedy and devastating loss, as looming over it all is the AIDS crisis.
We watch our young ensemble assemble in a London flatshare – including Callum Scott Howells’ endearingly naive Colin, Lydia West’s Jill, gently schooling and support him, Olly Alexander’s Ritchie, a wannabe actor, and Omari Douglas’ defiantly ambitious Roscoe. Davies surrounds them with banging tunes and a stellar cast that includes Shaun Dooley and Keeley Hawes as Ritchie’s parents. In short, there’s everything here you need to get immediately emotionally involved in this tale of growing pains, forming identities and self-discovery.
The show is packed with thoughtful, richly observed details that ring with honesty and first-hand experience. We watch as Colin’s job at a Savile Row tailor brings him both friendship and mentorship – Neil Patrick Harris in a scene-stealing turn as the veteran Henry. We grimace as Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is tasked with censoring the school library to comply with Section 28. We see Ritchie deny the AIDS crisis altogether, until his encounters on the acting circuit leave him with no option but to confront the silent killer spreading through society.
Davies is fantastic at capturing both the strength of Roscoe daring to leave home when his father intends to take him back to Nigeria, and the excitement of Colin learning to express himself – and undercutting that with the shame that follows the men we meet. From a closeted, self-loathing Tory MP (Stephen Fry) who treats Roscoe as a token plaything to Colin’s boss trying to take advantage of him, the weight of suffocating embarrassment passes from one generation to the next. It’s only compounded if they do contract AIDS; one episode sees Gloria (David Carlyle) retreat behind closed doors when he falls ill, solely turning to Jill to secretly buy in his groceries.
With only five episodes of one hour each, no sooner have we started to care for these characters than Russell T Davies starts to bring home the reality of the unspoken disease, and its ripples as they spread through our core group are unflinchingly depicted – not only by the uniformly brilliant young cast but by the adults playing their loved ones. Dooley’s doting and jaded dad is brimming with old-fashioned bullish views, while Keeley Hawes’ flawlessly performed mother is so busy keeping up appearances that she doesn’t see what’s in front of her – a long take of her just walking up and down a corridor is riveting, gut-wrenching viewing.
The toxic legacy of humiliation is as powerfully moving as the tangible sense of loss – a portrait of grief and death on this kind of scale can’t help but resonate in 2021, bringing home the pain and trauma of the AIDS pandemic for an audience one generation removed. Throughout this anthem for doomed youth, though, is also a sense of living life, a reminder of the strength and solidarity that can be found among friends, the chosen family we surround ourselves with. It’s fitting, then, that the final moments should be devoted to Lydia West’s star-making turn as the steadfast Jill, who seeks out literature on the virus, helps those she knows and provides comfort and company to those she doesn’t. Prepare to laugh, cry and get angry through these masterfully crafted chapters of profound TV – and pray for more people to be like Jill.