REVIEW: ‘It’s a Sin’ Is The Greatest Tragedy You Have To Watch

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its a sin

I used to love Rent. I don’t know. Maybe I still do. But having just finally gotten my eyes to stop stinging from the pain of watching It’s a Sin, newly arrived on HBO Max in its entirety from Britain, I’m not sure I can ever look at the musical the same way again. Rent is perhaps the most famous and popular depiction of the peak of the AIDS crisis. But in retrospect, it was an aspirational show that borders on the romanticization of AIDS and in a lot of ways, feels back-burnered by the show’s complicated overlapping themes. It’s a Sin is an outright tragedy of the highest degree. It will leave you hollow, guilty, and it is an absolute imperative that you watch it.

Taking place over a decade from 1981-1991, It’s a Sin follows a dear, beautiful group of friends who come from dramatically different backgrounds but find a deep, deep love for one another as they live, dream, and sleep together through the height of the AIDS crises. Richie (Olly Alexander), Jill (Lydia West), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Collin (Callum Scott Howells) live together in a flat they dub the Pink Palace and build together a life free of their supporting pasts and filled with abiding support for one another. Their personalities couldn’t be more distinct, but you can’t help but feel like their love is so genuine.

But all of that love and the strong, positive depictions of male affection and emotions is built on top of the worst dramatic irony there could be. For as much as the show continuously builds you up to fall more in love with each character, their relationships, and their aspirations, you know from only a few moments into the show that any one of them may not live to see their dreams come true. Any one of them may die from AIDS.

In a way, the dramatic irony is a genius piece of directing. The show explicitly makes the implication early on through a voiceover montage that basically says so outright. And it parallels exactly the experience of being diagnosed with HIV. Life instantly becomes a ticking time bomb where death is inevitable and the only unknown is when it will finally come. And so it is with watching It’s a Sin. You know the tragedy is coming. You just don’t know when it will come and who it will take. So you watch in constant suspense, mourning the loss of characters you love before they even depart, hoping futilely they might make it through the end, and maybe even distancing yourself from characters you might love more for fear of the pain of losing them. I’m not sure a stronger heuristic for the monstrosity of AIDS could exist on film.

The show itself is wonderfully put together. I particularly appreciate the way it utilizes popular songs from the 80s that most viewers can recognize to set a very specific, usually uplifting tone only to usually cut the music and pivot straight into heartwrenching scenes. The costume work is also excellent. The actors don’t look like they age an iota over the 10 years the show takes place, but at least their outfits very clearly reflect the years the different episodes take place in. Roscoe’s makeup is also absolutely on-point and whoever did his makeup and costume work deserves extra praise on their own.

For a show filled mostly with actors who have never had roles of this caliber before, every single actor in the show is phenomenal from main cast to smaller roles. I found some of the transitions between when we first meet some of these characters and when they finally all come together jarring, their personalities didn’t all seem exactly in line with themselves, especially Richie. But by the end, I’d mostly forgotten about how odd things were at first.

I also seriously appreciate that, in contrast to Rent, the characters of It’s a Sin aren’t just vagabond, starving artists. They live a wonderfully liberal, creative set of lives, but they also have stable jobs and livelihoods. Sure they also fulfill a few stereotypes about get men in the 80s, or in general, but stereotypes are also built on trends, and they are only ever fulfilled in appreciable and sensitive ways.

The greatest part of It’s a Sin is that it’s not a show meant to give an inside look at gay culture in the 80s, or framed around the selatcious sex lives of people who contracted AIDS. Yes, there is a ton of sex, and frankly I think the only time I have seen men having sex on screen in the type of explicit way that other types of sex get depicted so easily. But the sex isn’t the point. The show is just about the lives of a dear group of friends. And it’s about the lives not lived, both for having ended too soon and for having never been given the chance to be loved at all.

Selfishness and selflessness spend a lot of time dancing back and forth across the show. The perceived selfishness of the men of the Pink Palace galavanting about having copious sex with strangers. The selflessness of Jill to constantly and unwaveringly support with zero judgement every decision her friends make and every friend and stranger who gets sick. The selfishness of Richie to dare to pursue his dream of acting despite his parents’ ridicule. The selflessness of every one of them to give whatever money they have to help each other when things are desperate. The selfishness of so many of the parents of the men who contract AIDS to rip them away from their communities and return them home to the place that filled them with shame and guilt for being who they were in the first place. And the selflessness of those parents who just love their kids no matter anything, and those who are willing to tell those other parents off.

its a sin

It’s hard for me to criticize this show given how tender and exemplary it is. But something that did bother me was the way that several different characters, when they are at their most sick, have a symptom where they divulge vulgar and intimate sexual desires. I don’t know if this very specific symptom is real or not, but in both practice and framing it felt like the one exploitative part of the show where the characters’ sexualities were being used as motivation for discomfort in a way the rest of the show worked hard not to do.

There were also a select few moments, mostly early on, where the cinematography was odd. One shot in the first episode had a jarring shift in focus from foreground to background and a montage moment in the second episode just felt off to me. But overall, the fact that the show consistently utilizes different camera techniques is actually really awesome. There are several instances of really great uses of focus or framing. And in one of perhaps the most intense scenes in the show, a series of long walk and talks and one-shot sequences further add to the already over-boiling tension brought on by the performances.

It’s a Sin might be the saddest, most difficult, most important piece of television on air right now. It’s a beautiful, brief look at lives lived and unlived. At love in all its forms, good and bad, in the most terrible of times. And it’s a harrowing reminder of not only the horrors of the near past for gay folks and those who love them, but of the terrors we continue to wreak upon them today.

It’s a Sin is streaming now on HBO Max.

It’s a Sin
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

It’s a Sin might be the saddest, most difficult, most important piece of television on air right now. It’s a beautiful, brief look at lives lived and unlived. At love in all its forms, good and bad, in the most terrible of times. And it’s a harrowing reminder of not only the horrors of the near past for gay folks and those who love them, but of the terrors we continue to wreak upon them today.