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We Love This So Much: 'It's a Sin' on HBO Max is a cathartic plague tale

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in HBO Max's "It's a Sin."

The entertainment industry loves a gay tragedy more than it loves actual gay people. But this time, I'll let it slide.

British TV import "It's a Sin," now available to stream in its entirety on HBO Max, is a story about the devastation of the AIDS crisis on a group of friends in the 1980s. If you're thinking, "I have seen this story before and have the Kleenex to prove it," oh yes, you have definitely seen it. AIDS — its mysterious rise, the deadly silence of world governments, the shame, the deaths — casts an outsize shadow on the narrative of queer life. Rightfully so.

So, while the goal certainly is for stories of unapologetic gay love to reach the mainstream, too, a story told well is still a story worth telling. 

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"It's a Sin," created and written by "Doctor Who" and "Years and Years" mastermind Russell T Davies, distinguishes itself by clinging to the ecstasy of queer love and life amid the agony. A group of young things moves to London in 1981 with their lives in front of them: naïve actor Ritchie (played by Years & Years singer Olly Alexander), a nascent bon vivant; sweet, kind tailor's apprentice Colin (Callum Scott Howells); confrontational, daring Roscoe (Omari Douglas), cast out from his religious Nigerian family; hunky thinker Ash (Nathaniel Curtis); and Jill (Lydia West), part life of the part and part den mother. As with queer canon classics like "Tales of the City," the found family is strong.

Over five episodes set across a decade, the residents of the Pink Palace, as they dub their flat, chase dreams and flings, navigate thorny relationships with their parents and throw back more than a little beer. The AIDS crisis begins as a hushed rumor — Ritchie chastises a man in an early episode for leaving flyers about the disease at the neighborhood gay bar, accusing him of trying to shame them out of their liberation. Soon, the menace creeps into the world of the protagonists until it inevitably chokes out some of their lives.

Nathaniel Curtis plays Ash Mukherjee in HBO Max's "It's a Sin."

I could name more movies about tragedy in the queer film library than not. There are the explicit AIDS dramas like "The Normal Heart" and "100 BPM," then the ones where the pandemic hangs a shadow over another plot, like "Pride," and even the films that just won't let their gays be happy, like "Brokeback Mountain" and "My Own Private Idaho." (I love most of these, to be clear.)

This particular plague story arrives with confidence. Davies' heartbreaking miniseries condenses a lot into its container but has such affection for its characters and their world that it never sinks to trauma porn. Alexander's Ritchie is so young and alive, and so enamored of the freedom he's found, that "It's a Sin" becomes a memorial that celebrates as much as it mourns. Each member of the core cast serves their archetype well, none more so than Howells' tragic Colin, who earns the lion's share of the tears.

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If you're unsure about watching a pandemic tearjerker, hey, I hear you. I won't promise escapism. But consider a scene where Ash, who works in a library, is told to sort through the books and remove any that promote homosexuality. As he cathartically points out to his friends at a party, those in charge of history and literature already did a fine job of removing queer lives from our memories.

It is a blessing to remember. 

Omari Douglas as Roscoe Babatunde in HBO Max's "It's a Sin."

Eric Webb is the Austin360 entertainment editor for the American-Statesman. Email him at ewebb@statesman.com and follow him on Twitter @webbeditor.

About this story

We Love This So Much is Austin360 recurring series of pop culture recommendations.