Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics, and a theater critic for The Guardian newspaper. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
In the second episode of new TV drama, “It’s a Sin,” a young woman named Jill comes to check on a friend who’s been unwell. “Just keep your distance!”, he blurts as he opens the door, then jumps back six feet – leaving her hanging awkwardly in his doorway. Before long, she’s running his errands and dropping off groceries on the doorstep. But each time she returns to her own apartment, the viewer sees Jill scrub frantically in the shower, scouring herself to purge the taint of the infected household.
“It’s a Sin” isn’t a show about the current Covid-19 pandemic. It’s about the last great pandemic to engulf Britain and America: the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s the creation of Russell T. Davies, the showrunner behind the 2005 revival of “Dr Who” and 1999’s “Queer as Folk.” Now he’s retelling the history of how HIV/AIDS first cut through London’s gay scene. A recent hit on British terrestrial TV, it premieres to US audiences on HBO Max this week. Despite its status as historical storytelling, one of things that makes “It’s a Sin” extraordinary – and there will be few more extraordinary pieces of television this year – is its resonance in the time of Covid-19.
This is a show about what pandemics do to our friendships; to our capacity for physical intimacy; to our fear of other people’s bodies.
When Jill scours herself after visiting an HIV positive friend she is, of course, wrong to imagine she’s at risk. HIV is not transmitted through the skin, or through the air. But a lot of people get medical facts wrong in “It’s A Sin.” One young man, Ritchie, is convinced that warnings being spread about HIV are part of a homophobic conspiracy to stop gay men having sex.
In one of the show’s most memorable sequences, he dances through a montage of nightclub scenes, reciting to camera his list of reasons why practicing safe sex would constitute giving into scaremongering: “it’s a racket, it’s a money-making scheme for drugs companies … they wanna scare us and stop us having sex and make us really boring, basically because they can’t get laid … they say it arrived from outer space on a comet. And they say that God created it to strike us dead. They say it was created in a laboratory to kill us. They say it’s the Russians. They say we got it from the jungle … How did I know it’s not true? Because I’m not stupid.”
Set against the sound of “Do You Wanna Funk” by Sylvester – a queer icon who would die from complications of AIDS in 1988 – the sequence is shot like a music video. It isn’t a mocking exposé of ignorance: it’s a bittersweet celebration of a beautiful young man who’s already experienced so much loss that he wants to deny the existence of death.
Like many characters in the show, Ritchie has escaped from a repressive home and, exploring the gay party scene as a student in London, feels he’s only just begun to live. That the party is poisoned, the site of liberation also a trap, seems too bitter an irony for him to believe. It’s brilliantly done.
Make the odd tweak, and this sequence could be a homemade anti-vaxxer video or conspiracy theory about Covid-19. This is why “It’s a Sin” feels so important at this moment: it’s a show which humanizes characters who make mistakes in the face of a pandemic.
Shame comes with a death toll
With a touch of didacticism, showrunner Davies positions us to realize that we make some of our greatest mistakes when we read moral prejudices into science. In the universe of the show, these mistakes can stem from homophobic cruelty – several characters are abandoned in hospital wards by nurses who won’t go near them. They can stem from a refusal to change behaviors we see as central to our identity – Ritchie’s refusal to learn about safe sex. They can stem from blind panic – in one scene that feels straight out of 2020, a dying man’s sister sees another caregiver wearing rubber gloves. Like a character from a recent “Saturday Night Live” sketch, the sister spends the rest of the scene frantically repeating a question about whether she should be wearing rubber gloves also.
As a character detail, it is there to indicate her extreme selfishness. But in the age of Covid-19, it also feels human. Who hasn’t panicked this year about how to protect themselves?
The moral impulse which Davies condemns most is the inclination to shame and to be shamed. In the first episode, Ritchie’s father gives him advice about practicing safe sex with women. He and his friends get no such guidance about safe sex with other men, because they come from homes where the very concept of such desire is shameful. (We watch Ritchie throw away his paternally-provided pack of condoms – wryly smiling at his father’s fear that he’ll otherwise “get a girl into trouble.”)
One character doesn’t reveal his AIDS diagnosis even to his other gay friends, for fear of being labeled promiscuous. Like many of these characters, he returns to his unloving family home to die: back in London, “going home” becomes a euphemism in gay-friendly circles for death by AIDS.
In the final episode, Jill, with the clarion moral certainty of the showrunner’s voice, confronts a homophobic mother whose son has just died, explaining that her son was killed by shame. “He kept the shame going by having sex with men and infecting them and then running away. ‘Cause that’s what shame does. It makes him think he deserves it.” No wonder Davies took his title from a 1987 Pet Shop Boys track, the lyrics of which begin: “When I look back upon my life / it’s always with a sense of shame.” Shame is what prevents honest conversations about the science of HIV transmission; understanding that science saves lives.
‘Either angelic or monstrous’
It is therefore frustrating that Davies is determined to fix so much of the culpability for all this shame specifically on women. In “It’s A Sin,” women are either angelic or monstrous. Jill is the only female lead character – and fair enough, this is a show which specifically sets out to tell the story of the impact of the pandemic on gay men – but she’s also the least complex. For all her anxious scrubbing, she spends the whole time selflessly caring for her dying friends. Great – but how about letting Jill have a personal life too? Or even a strain of complexity?
All this is reminiscent of Matthew Lopez’ brilliant recent play, “The Inheritance,” which reworks the experience of the post-AIDS generation of gay New Yorkers as a modern adaptation of EM Forster’s novel “Howard’s End”, another superb work of art, but one whose only female character– a regretful mother who has turned herself into the Mother Theresa of the AIDS hospice – appears in the final 20 minutes.
In “It’s a Sin,” two central characters die of AIDS. We meet both their mothers. One mother reacts with unflinching moral perfection as her son dies; one is the monster confronted by Jill. By the finale, she has become caricature who owes more to homophobic fantasies of the over-attached mother than to queer-positive literature. Like the ‘overbearing’ mothers of gay sons imagined in too many reactionary novels, she asserts total control of her son’s life and bans his friends from his deathbed.
By contrast, we meet two fathers in the first episode who appear irredeemably homophobic (and in one case, racist.) Both ask for and are offered redemption. Davies clearly aims to make feminist TV: the very first words uttered in “It’s A Sin” come from a young man expressing his horror at historic restrictions on women. (If only to assert, in heavy-handed fashion, his character’s distance from his heteronormative family.) Yet in the show Davies has created, character growth and moral complexity are for men only.
The ‘unwitting lesson to the Covid-19 generation’
There are other criticisms to make. The depiction of Thatcherite politics is clunky: Stephen Fry, British national treasure, seems to be sending up his hammy public persona as closeted Conservative MP Arthur Garrison. For a show that seeks to take the AIDS stigma out of sex between gay men, there’s oddly little mention of anyone dying from other forms of HIV transmission. (As others have complained, there is no representation of a woman with HIV in the show.)
And in one of the most sophisticated British critiques of the show – which contains full spoilers – Brian Mullin has argued that “It’s A Sin” is wrong to give us explanations of how and why each ‘victim’ contracted HIV, introducing tidy moral narratives even as the show seemingly seeks to reject them. Will the Covid-19 dramas of the future feel the need to show viewers where each character contracted SARS-Cov-2, and whether they were taking “risks”?
Perhaps they will. Davies’ unwitting lesson to the Covid-19 generation is that human behavior in the face of a pandemic does affect health outcomes – precisely because moral prejudice gets in the way of public education. Meanwhile, there’s as much to learn here about the 1980s as about the 2020s: The 1980s soundscape alone is a perfectly curated paean to the decade’s leitmotif of desire and ambition. To the show’s target audience, the music may be as much of a discovery as is the history: this is a series aimed squarely at younger millennials and Generation Z, too young to have lived through the peak of the HIV crisis, more queer-friendly than any previous generation, but often woefully ignorant about this history.
For those of us who are older millennials, the story of AIDS was often the story of the art made about AIDS: we learned this history through Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia,” through the HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” through coverage of the NAMES Project Memorial Aids Quilt. “It’s a Sin” often seems to reject this artistic legacy completely. It breaks away from memorials that focus on grief, to an equal celebration of joy: in one vital scene, a dying character urges us not to forget that life in London’s gay scene was “so much fun.”
What does emerge from these sex-saturated, go-get-‘em, Blondie-scored scenes is the confluence of 1980s and 2020s values: Ritchie and his friends are as determined to live their lives for themselves as any Thatcherite. The looming culture war that surrounds them seems to be about who gets to fulfill their desires to the max, and who gets to be marginalized and hated. The boundaries of political identities are fiercely policed. This could be Trump’s America.
All of this is a disjunction from more conventional AIDS narratives of noble victimhood. This is AIDS history for a generation who believe gay life is something to be celebrated and that celebration always means a party. They are the first generation who can’t remember anything of the shadows of the 1980s and 1990s: the recent success of both “It’s A Sin” and “The Inheritance” is a corrective to the era of “Will and Grace” or “Queer as Folk,” when gay-led stories in pop culture were notable for avoiding references to the trauma memory of AIDS in gay communities.
But this generation of viewers will grow up with a youth scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the first AIDS victims, they know the cost when a government grotesquely mismanages a public health crisis. As history refresher and as lived experience, “It’s a Sin” will resonate.