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‘It’s a Sin’ Is a Transporting and Tragic Tale of the AIDS Epidemic: TV Review

In 2019, British television writer and producer Russell T Davies turned his attention to the future with the gripping limited series “Years and Years.” Now, he’s transporting us to a past that seems both distant and all too recent.

“It’s a Sin,” which launches this month on HBO Max after a run on Britain’s Channel 4, follows a group of friends living in London through the 1980s — a decade that begins, for them, with the promise of liberation and moves, as the AIDS epidemic takes root, towards isolation and pain. The series demonstrates once again Davies’ masterful control of tone, shifting in five episodes from joy to the harder-won pleasures of solidarity in the face of crisis to — finally — tragedy. As a depiction of a horrific period in the life of a community, “It’s a Sin” has a crystalline sense of the power of its project. But it makes room, throughout, for small moments of grace. Its characters are not saints or martyrs but people who lived — making death, when it enters the story, feel all the more real.

When we begin, though, the only sign that danger lies ahead comes from the calendar: We watching at home know that the first episode taking place in 1981 suggests trouble for gay characters, but the characters’ believe life to just be opening up, not about to narrow. Olly Alexander plays Ritchie, a young man who sees his future on the stage; the big city represents for him the perfect place to remake his offstage life, too, into its own theatrical project. Ritchie, never allowed to live on his own terms growing up, pursues pleasure with no reason to believe that it will have any consequence but good ones; among the rewards he finds is a sense of community with Roscoe (Omari Douglas, alternately knowingly sly and ebullient), a bright aesthete who’s escaped a rigidly traditional family, and Colin (Callum Scott Howells, almost impossibly innocent), a pragmatic, sweetly winning would-be fashion designer. Jill (Lydia West, of “Years and Years”) completes the picture, a den mother of sorts who’s the first to begin seriously contemplating the strange disease making headlines. When Colin goes on a trip to New York, Jill asks him to bring back books and newspapers covering AIDS in a way it isn’t being dealt with in the U.K.

Jill’s love for her friends — even when they are less than lovable — animates the series, and if, as a character, she is a touch reactive rather than proactive, West’s warm but careful and guarded performance gives the sense that Jill knows, and partially regrets, that. She has given of herself freely but perhaps beyond the point to which she might have retained her boundaries. If she is the quiet soul of the series, actor Ritchie is its loudly thumping heart, seeking love in frantically filmed montages and appreciation over the show’s longer run. “I want to be anyone,” he declares near the series’s midpoint. “I want to be Hamlet, I want to be Romeo. But if I said I’m gay, I’ll be just the clown.” That by this time there are plainly problems more urgent than his job prospects doesn’t register; history doesn’t necessarily feel like history when it’s happening all around you.

Or sometimes, the force of human events all hits at once, as it does to Ritchie in a bravura sequence in the series’s fourth episode. Ritchie returns to his hometown to see his strained, disapproving parents, then to a pub to see a classmate he’d always fancied. Ritchie pumps him for compliments then pursues, wrongheadedly, sexual solace from this comforting figure from the past. Having lost the sense of the future as something holding potential, Ritchie is seeking something from the past that was never there to begin with. Alexander’s work — in this episode and throughout the season — is a delicately crafted and layered portrayal of a young man who feels painfully too much, swerving between the euphoric highs that have always been a part of youth and lows he never would have expected. In his giddy, alluring vanity and in what comes after that vanity’s been scraped away, Alexander, aided by an able cast across the board, delivers what should be a starmaking turn.

Ritchie, Roscoe, and Colin are of a generation that ended up denied so much — and, ironically, one that seemed to have been given more than they might have hoped for. In the first episode, for instance, Colin faces down a handsy boss (Nicholas Blane) trapped in the closet, as well as a relative elder (Neil Patrick Harris, putting on a British accent) who lives a semi-open life with a partner. “The official history of the world says that men like us have always been hidden away in secret,” Harris’ character declares. “But then there’s the real world where we’ve been living, together, for all this time.” It’s Colin’s time, and Roscoe’s and Ritchie’s, to step yet further into the light, until darkness overwhelms.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s little uplift to be found here, in the traditional sense. But the warmth of fellow-feeling took me aback; characters understand and forgive one another’s vulnerability and — in Ritchie’s case — their errors in judgment when it comes to how they treat their fellow man. Despite the audience’s knowledge that the 1980s are a bad decade that gets worse and worse for gay men, the series doesn’t get ahead of its own characters; it doesn’t judge them, either, even as it appraises them clearly. The great achievement of Davies’ previous show “Years and Years” — the high point of a career that’s also included “Queer as Folk” and “Doctor Who” — was was revealing history’s impact on normal lives, drawing aspirations and relationships into the slipstream of chaos.

That show, depicting what might lay ahead in the 2020s, was a work of imagination. So, too, is this one — but “It’s a Sin” is foremost a testament. Its characters were given everything they needed, including the motivation provided by restrictive youth, to imagine a freer, more just, more fun-loving society in which they might take center stage. Only one thing was missing: The good fortune of living in uneventful times. That accounts one reading of the title — these characters were raised to think that their lives were a sin. Another reading is that for life to cut short the possibilities of young people with so much they might have seen and done and felt is sinful in its own way. It feels cruel beyond what we, even now, can bear. Their stories, halted or attenuated by a virus with a cunning way of insinuating itself into the still-nascent gay community, are told here with care and deep thought. Davies has once again made great and painful art about time’s passage, and has earned the attention of anyone who wants to learn more about what the 1980s were like for gay people — or wants to connect, deeply, with a raw and rounded humanity in all its beauty, complexity, and fleeting joy.

All episodes of “It’s a Sin” will appear on HBO Max on Feb. 18.

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